News Item Two

Firewalk left accountant with burns

By Lewis Smith
Article originated by times-online
The Times
February 03, 2006

A FIRM of corporate consultants has been fined after a senior accountant burnt her feet while walking on embers as part of a confidence-building exercise.

The woman, who worked for the international business advisory group Deloitte, ended up in hospital and had to take a fortnight off work.

The firewalk was supposed to be the highlight of a motivational skills course proving that the seemingly impossible could be accomplished. A bed of embers had been prepared in a car park in Southwark, South London, and the woman walked across it barefoot before collapsing.

In properly controlled conditions, firewalking is supposed to be safe, and thousands of workers have done it. The accountant, however, had been given a pedicure a few days before the course and it is thought that some of the chemicals used had made her feet more sensitive to the heat.

Skin on the soles is generally 25 times thicker than on other parts of the body and the trick to firewalking is to get across the embers quickly so that they do not have time to burn the tissue. The motivational course was conducted by Si Group, a corporate development firm that has carried out firewalking exercises for five years.

At Camberwell Green Magistrates' Court it was fined 3,000 and ordered to pay 4,655 in costs after admitting that it had failed to carry out an adequate risk assessment.

Andy Wolfe, the chief executive of Si Group, based in Central London, said yesterday: "We deeply regret what happened. We've learnt from this experience."

He said that the company had put 6,000 people through the firewalk and this was the first time that something had gone wrong. "In all honesty it wasn't a huge incident but it has enabled us to focus on our already stringent procedures - we've changed them."

Getting people to walk across burning embers barefoot was, he said, "a metaphor to accelerate the learning that we coach". Participants usually leave the courses "euphoric", having proved to themselves that they can overcome their fears.

Deloitte still uses Si Group for motivational courses but has banned its accountants and other employees from firewalking. A spokeswoman said that the exercise that had gone wrong was very regrettable, and added: "We are pleased that it has now been dealt with. The member of staff concerned has made a full recovery."

Southwark council, which prosecuted Si Group after an investigation, said in a statement after the court hearing last month: "A female employee of Deloitte completed the firewalk after which she immediately complained of pain to her feet.

"Blisters soon appeared on her feet but when she complained and showed them to the organisers she was told that they were 'fire kisses' and she would be able to walk on the following day. It eventually became clear that the victim was in considerable discomfort and had to be taken to the hospital.

"The defendant failed to follow safe systems of work prescribed in their procedures, which included offering information about skin conditions that would have excluded the victim from firewalking."