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Protecting employees who work in high-risk countries


Trip hazardWith increasing social and economic unrest, and the growth of terrorism attacks around the world, Mike Penrose explains the responsibilities that companies have for employees working and travelling in high-risk countries.

It is one of the great ironies of international business that so many of the regions with the most development potential are also sometimes plagued by endemic economic and political turmoil.

Regional conflicts, terrorist attack and difficult social and medical conditions are common problems for employees in these high-risk areas. But what responsibilities do their employers have and how can they ensure they fulfil their duty of care to staff?

Reliably assessing levels of risk, managing it and, ultimately, deciding when a situation is simply too risky, have never been more complicated or more necessary. The moral obligation to keep overseas workers safe is now reinforced by increasingly pressing legal obligations and responsibilities.

“Before staff are sent into hazardous areas, or even before a particular individual has joined the company, a good first step is to define what is safe in terms of working conditions and what is not.”

Mike Penrose, regional director for International SOS

For UK companies, the broader issues of employee safety will already be at the top of the agenda, thanks to the new Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, which comes into force in April. While that legislation will not directly apply to employees abroad, it will turn the spotlight onto company-wide ‘safety culture’ of all UK businesses.

Add to that the UK’s existing Heath and Safety legislation – which can effect overseas operations – plus the possibility of prosecution in foreign jurisdictions and civil action by victims, and the legal drivers for taking a fresh look at employee welfare become rather compelling.

Before staff are sent into hazardous areas, or even before a particular individual has joined the company, a good first step is to define what is safe in terms of working conditions and what is not. This will be very different for every individual.

Risk strategy

Contracts of employment and initial training will have to make clear to every new recruit exactly what the company policy is, in terms of the demands of their job, any travel and the risks associated with foreign locations. A clear paper trail for this process is very important and should include feedback from staff, confirming they have been properly briefed.

But finding the appropriate strategy for each risk area and each job can be just as difficult as ensuring that they are explained and adhered to. For example, someone who has spent their whole life in Beijing may feel less familiar – and be at greater risk – in New York than in Azerbaijan. Such an individual would have an entirely different risk assessment to someone from, say, London.

Furthermore, some types of risk can be far more tricky to quantify and manage than others. With medical risks, for example, people are usually happy that, if the doctor says ‘take this pill and you won’t get malaria’, they should take the pill.

“The bottom line is that every risk management policy should be robust enough to provide a clear course of action.”

But security risks are much less tangible. The attitude of the individual, their understanding of the way their environment affects them and the way they act can also be crucial.

Location assessment

Some regions also demand more preparation, and there are specific examples that offer useful insight. Any organisation thinking of sending staff into the Congo should first try to understand as much about that country as possible, including a full social, geopolitical, industrial and corruption profile. Then do an ‘on the ground’ survey of the area where people are actually going to be working or living. From there, it is possible to plan the logistics behind setting things up, getting people in and, if the worst happens, evacuating them.

It is critically important that the policies companies put in place to assess and manage specific risks take the full range of these and other variables into account, so each employee is completely prepared before they leave to live or work in a new country. To this end, there are certain steps employers and travel managers should go through.

First, they should make sure both they and the employee have the most up-to-date information about their destination. The second stage involves ensuring staff have completed risk assessments and will comply with the company’s travel policy.

Next, employers should be able to keep track of staff movements around the world. In a crisis, such as an outbreak of war, terrorist act or natural disaster, employers are too frequently unable to answer basic questions about the numbers and identities of employees who may be affected. Travel plans, contact numbers and specific crisis procedures should be immediately available to managers, while individuals should be made aware of contact centres and evacuation plans.

The bottom line is that every risk management policy should be robust enough to provide a clear course of action, even in those eventualities which cannot be predicted: the terrorist bombing of a European capital, a sudden outbreak of a local war or a natural disaster on an unprecedented scale.

Doing business internationally is now part and parcel of today’s competitive global marketplace. But the necessity of sending staff overseas should not become a justification for exposing them to unnecessary risks. Armed with relevant, timely information, clear lines of communication and an accurate assessment of the working environment, organisations can seize international opportunities while still meeting their moral and legal obligations.

Mike Penrose is a regional director for International SOS, an international medical and security assistance company.

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