Us Australians love having a laugh, so it’s no surprise practical jokes are an iconic part of our culture. We all love a good, harmless prank, especially on our co-workers, family, or friends. But it’s important to make sure the safety of everyone involved comes first.
We don’t want to be the fun police, but unexpected consequences can arise, including serious injury. Even though workplace pranks may not be intended to hurt someone, it has happened in the past.
Do workplace pranks actually cause injury?
Unfortunately, they can. As WorkSafe Queensland put it “not all practical jokes have a funny outcome”.
In one of their case studies, a contract administrator suffered permanent hearing loss because of a co-worker’s attempt at a joke. The prank? The co-worker simply clapped their hands near the worker’s ears, while their hands were wet.
Two years later, the administrator sought medical attention for a constant ringing in his ears, where it was determined that the seemingly playful clap by his co-worker left him with tinnitus and hearing loss.
Another case from the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) shows a prank between colleagues that escalated into a sexual harassment claim.
It involved a school groundsman and a cleaner setting up the staff room so it looked like the aftermath of a “sex romp” to play a joke on another school cleaner, whose job it was to clean up. The trio regularly engaged in banter, so the colleagues thought it was harmless.
In a nutshell, the two pranksters kept a story going that led the cleaner to believe it was real and that it involved two other school employees. The pranksters only revealed the truth after the cleaner spoke to one of the employees he thought was involved.
The cleaner felt distressed and humiliated. He reported the matter to the school, and his GP found he suffered an acute anxiety state and PTSD because of the prank. He made a claim for compensation and eventually left his job.
The bottom line for this case showed that now matter how many times you’ve played pranks on co-workers before, or how funny the prank may seem, it can have serious ramifications on the person it was intended for.
So, what do you do if a workplace prank has gone wrong?
If a prank has backfired and someone is injured, seek medical attention. You should also complete an incident report truthfully, outlining exactly what happened and why. Even though it’s tempting to downplay any involvement or seriousness of the prank, honesty is the best policy because someone (either your employer or a lawyer) will usually find out.
And as you can see from the above examples, if you’re injured in a prank gone wrong, you may be entitled to claim compensation. How much compensation you receive will depend on where and how it happened, and the severity of the injury.
You may be able to lodge a Common Law claim for damages (also known as a workers’ compensation claim) if it can be proven that your employer was negligent in their duty of care to provide you with a safe workplace. In this instance, we recommend seeking legal advice as early as possible to preserve your rights.
Common pranks gone wrong
Some pranks, like sticky-taping your colleague’s mouse to the desk, are harmless. Others, like the ones below, are not.
Pulling a chair out
The favourite prank of children, but can be very serious if you land on your tailbone. Fractures accounted for about 14 per cent of statutory claim lodgements in the 2019-20 period.
Sticking a “kick me” sign to someone's back
Another childhood-level prank which inevitably goes wrong when someone takes it too far. Strains and sprain injury claims accounted for 30 per cent of all injuries. Of those, the back was the major bodily location.
Scaring colleagues (ranging from hiding behind doors to fake performance management meetings)
You might think it’s a joke, but your colleague doesn’t – particularly if it has the ability to harass, embarrass or humiliate.
Even if you don’t intend to do any of these things, the claims process assesses the experience of your co-worker and whether a reasonable person might be embarrassed or humiliated. Psychological and psychiatric injuries increased in 2019-20 to 5,316 claims, up 8.8% on the previous year.
Think twice before pranking your colleagues, as the long-term consequences may outweigh the short-term fun. If you’re a victim of workplace horseplay or a practical joke and suffer an injury that stops you from working, and you plan to make a WorkCover claim, here are five things you should know.