The recent number of global terrorist attacks and risks to health from viruses and disease has led employers to re-consider the on-going safety of employees who work overseas either temporarily or permanently as part of their duties and, in turn, their legal obligations to their employees. It goes without saying that the UK is not immune from terrorist attacks or outbreaks of viruses and/or disease. However, the general perception is that additional consideration needs to be given to employees who are working in foreign jurisdictions. It is timely therefore for employers to remind themselves of their obligations to employees, particularly those who are working in parts of the world where their health and safety is more likely to be compromised.
The threat to employees working overseas is two-fold. Given recent headlines, it is widely known that all employees face heightened security risks when working abroad. However, often overlooked by employers is the potential health risks an employee faces that can either stem from endemic viruses or diseases such as malaria or zika or from short term illness caused by intolerances to local food and/or water.
So how far does an employer's obligation to its employees stretch and what practical steps can be taken to minimise any risk? The starting point is that all employers have a legal duty to ensure, as far as possible, the health safety and welfare of their employees and to provide a safe place and system of work (regardless of location). Failure to do so could lead to them facing civil claims which could amount to significant sums of compensation being paid or criminal charges being faced which may include corporate manslaughter charges.
The main priority for employers should be to identify and then take all "reasonable" steps to minimise, as far as is reasonably possible, the risk of any health or security risks to their employees. What is "reasonable" will depend on the circumstances and obviously not every eventuality can be protected against. However, in the event of a claim, employers should be able to demonstrate that they have considered all foreseeable risks and have taken all reasonable steps to minimise them.
It is not only the employer who is bound by obligations. All employees are duty-bound to have regard for their own health and safety and not to take any unnecessary risks that may affect their own health and safety or that of any colleagues they may be travelling with. Employees who are negligent in terms of their own health and safety or that of their colleagues may not be covered by any insurance in place and their conduct may well provide a defence to their employer should a claim ultimately be issued.
Common sense dictates that prevention is better than cure and some practical tips employers can take include:
before travel, be aware of the current threat in the destination country. The Foreign Office website is often a good source of information - https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice;
carry out a risk assessment of foreseeable risks and threats and put in place any reasonable measures to minimise those risks. For example, there are certain countries where laws govern the behaviour of women. There are parts of the Middle East where a lone female traveller may not be allowed to travel with a male in a car, so women may not be exposed to criminal activity but may encounter difficulties in terms of local laws and so providing training and/or a security briefing to employees before travel is likely to be beneficial;
in terms of training, there are many organisations that provide such training and one benefit of using an external organisation is that they often have extensive local knowledge of a particular destination that may not be obvious from using traditional search tools. This can be extremely beneficial to employers and employees alike. Providing such training (whether internal or external) not only demonstrates how seriously the employer is taking the health and safety of their employees but also reminds even the most seasoned traveller of potential risks;
at all times, engage the employee in the process. Employers should discuss with them the results of any risk assessment and work with them to put in place any reasonable measures to manage their health and safety. It may be that the employee has some specific requests/ideas to contribute that the employer has not considered. Some employers provide employees with GPS trackers that will provide the employer with the employee's exact location at any given time. Alternatively there are apps available that allow employees to log-in and ask for get updates on fluid situations or simply ‘check in’ to let their employer know their whereabouts;
ensure that policies and procedures are up to date in terms of a contingency plan in the event of an emergency situation. Despite security and health-related headlines becoming more and more common, in reality when an emergency situation arises, it is always a shock. If no contingency plan exists, then employers could be left not knowing what to do. As well as ensuring the policies and procedures are in place and are up to date, it is important that all relevant personnel are aware of them and know how to implement them. As it is hopefully a rare occurrence that such policies will ever be relied upon, it may well be that more recent staff members are unaware of their existence and/or have never implemented them in practice;
ensure the organisation has appropriate insurance in place to safeguard both the business and its employees against foreseeable risk. In addition to medical insurance, if this is not offered as a benefit to employees, employers should consider offering this for the duration of any trip and/or paying for any vaccinations an employee may need before travel. While it could be argued that this is the employees' responsibility, if the employee becomes ill while overseas, this is likely to affect productivity and may well result in a wasted trip and so the cost of any necessary vaccinations is likely to be cost effective method of minimising the risk of illness.
In addition to the legal and financial obligations, there are also moral obligations for an employer to consider. If an emergency situation does arise, it will not just be the employee who looks to the employer for support, it will also be the families and colleagues of any affected employees, who often feel powerless to do anything to help. An employer who fails to consider this moral obligation could face reputational risk and a loss of any trust their employees have built up over their time with the organisation. While there is no legal obligation to have a plan in place to deal with these softer issues, it would be detrimental to any business who, as an otherwise respected employer, failed to consider them.