When HR Team-Building Is on Fire

(p. B2) Walking barefoot across hot coals, an ancient religious ritual popularized in recent years as a corporate team-building exercise, has once again bonded a group of co-workers through the shared suffering of burned feet.

In the latest case of the stunt going wrong, 25 employees of a Swiss ad agency were injured Tuesday [June 14, 2022] evening while walking over hot coals in Zurich, officials said. Ten ambulances, two emergency medical teams and police officers from multiple agencies were deployed to help, according to the Zurich police. Thirteen people were briefly hospitalized.

. . .

Mr. Willey, who taught for years at the University of Pittsburgh, once shared the world record for the longest distance walked on hot coals.

The promises made by corporate retreat organizers are frequently unjustified, Mr. Willey said.

“They’re telling you that it’s all in your mind, and this will give you powers that will continue,” he said. “It’s not in your mind. Anybody can do it. And I don’t think the confidence you get from it is necessarily going to last that long.”

Mr. Willey said that coals at 1,000 degrees are safe to walk on for 20 feet or more, adding that he walked on coals at that temperature for 495 feet without getting a blister.

On his website, he writes that at a brisk walk your bare foot comes into contact with coals for just around a second, which is not enough time for heat to be transmitted painfully from coals to the human flesh. Both the coals and skin have vastly lower thermal conductivity than, for instance, metal, he said.

But mistakes can lead to injuries. These include curling your toes and trapping a coal between them; walking on coals that are too hot; choosing the wrong type of wood, since some get hotter than others; and performing a fire walk on a beach, where your feet might sink into sand, Mr. Willey said.

For the full story, see:

Alex Traub. “Company’s Team-Building Exercise Involved Hot Coals. It Ended Badly.” The New York Times (Monday, June 20, 2022): B2.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 17, 2022, and has the title “Walking on Hot Coals: A Company Event Goes Wrong.”)

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