When tragedy strikes abroad

Gavin
Evans seeks advice on the sad and unpleasant task facing many UK organisations
in the wake of the appalling events in New York this week.

The
human tragedy of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York has
been uppermost in business minds over the last week.

Tragically,
for many there is the unfolding and unsavoury challenge of having to return
bodies of overseas staff killed in the catastrophe back to their families in
Europe.

It
is a common problem faced by Michael Weiland, international services and
medical affairs manager of Global Emergency Medical Services.

He
explained that most companies find it more difficult to bring home a dead
person than to arrange emergency medical treatment or evacuation for those
still alive. The first difficulty they find is that international medical
insurance stops at death.

Karen
Froud, of the British-based health insurer Bupa International, said that in the
case of serious illness her company will immediately pull out all the stops,
including emergency evacuation, but if the member dies, the story is rather
different – in effect, death ends the contract.

She
explains, "We would advise the company to contact the embassy for
practical advice, but we ourselves offer no special procedures for death,
beyond providing a doctor to sign the death certificate, and we don’t cover for
returning the body home."

This
means that it is up to the deceased’s company to cut through the red tape and
sort out the mess. Weiland explained, "Deaths in a foreign country can be
a web of bureaucratic compliance, religious rites woven into laws and payoffs
to everyone in the chain of events."

The
problems vary according to the circumstances. For a start it may take a while
for the death to be discovered. "We’ve had situations where a businessman
has died in his hotel and the maid thought he was sleeping, and just closed the
door, and it took another 24 hours to discover he was dead, and even then the
hotel had no information about whom to contact," said Weiland.

This
is most likely if the traveller is alone in a foreign city. He will then be at
the "mercy" of locals at the time of death. He may not be carrying
his passport or any company document, which could mean that the foreign
hospital or police service has difficulty identifying him, and his body remains
at the local morgue for several days before he is reported missing and traced.

But
even if they are quickly identified, there can still be problems. If the police
suspect that there was a crime involved, the body may be part of the evidence
in a lengthy trial. On the other hand, if the person was the victim of an
accident or a crime, his family might decide to pursue legal action. In both
cases, his company can expect to cover the costs of an autopsy, and they may
need to retain an independent pathologist.

A
hospital death is the easiest to deal with because then a doctor routinely
signs the death certificate. But this also can create its own difficulties. For
example if it is suspected that the person died from a communicable disease,
you can expect a long delay before the body is released, and local health
officials may demand cremation.

If
the employee has lived abroad for some time, the authorities may be reluctant
to release his body unless all his taxes are paid. They tend to hold the body
as a kind of ransom, because it is their only means of getting the money.

There
have been several reported cases of caskets being used to smuggle contraband,
particularly drugs, so in some countries it may be prudent to check for this
before the body is flown home. And finally, the deceased’s family may want to
accompany the body home.

Weiland
recommends taking great care about the logistics of this trip, to the point of
booking them in business or first class seats on the left side of the plane. As
he explained, "Cargo is normally loaded from the right, and the first
class and business class are forward of the cargo hatches, so family members
looking out of the left front windows are less likely to be upset by seeing the
casket on the tarmac or being loaded – and sometimes the airport staff drop it,
which makes things worse. An outburst of grief may scare the crew and passengers
and cause the family to miss the flight."

What
it all points to is a hands-on, prepared-for-the-worst approach well before
disaster strikes. Some companies have learned through their own hard
experience. Three years ago the Korean chief executive of Daewoo South Africa
was murdered in an armed robbery.

The
process of replacing him, bringing the body home to Seoul and assisting his
family provided an object lesson for everyone in the industry, not least Daewoo
itself. And the lessons spread to other motor manufacturers. German-based BMW,
for instance, promptly reviewed its procedures for dealing with tragedies
abroad.

"If
anything goes wrong – for example, a death, a car-jacking, a serious illness –
we take a hands-on approach from the word go," said BMW’s HR director
Christine Watson. "There is nothing we wouldn’t do to assist the families,
even long after they return home, and that includes psychological counselling."

Advice
when handling the death of an employee abroad


Ensure your HR department is well versed on how to handle an overseas death and
is kept informed when anyone is abroad.


Retain up-to-date information on how to contact travelling employees at all
times. If one of them dies, you should be the first to know.


Make sure you can contact his or her spouse, partner or children at home – not
just an address and home phone number, but also mobile and work numbers. It is
useful to retain details of religious affiliation, including the name of a
priest or minister.


Be prepared to ask someone within the company who knows the employee’s family
to take on the task of breaking the news. It is best not to inform the next of
kin about the death over the telephone.


Include the family in all the preparations for the return of the body, and make
sure you are fully briefed on their wishes and they on your actions.


Be prepared to contact the embassy immediately and request their assistance as
soon as you learn of the death. A pre-prepared list of embassy or consulate numbers
in every city where your employees visit is useful.


It helps to have a reliable agent or contact in the city where the death occurs
– someone you can rely on to monitor arrangements.


If you have several employees working abroad it may be worth retaining the
services of an international emergency medical service with experience in
returning bodies and bringing families of dead employees home.


Alternatively consider dispatching a company official to the scene. Even if the
employee’s spouse is there, she or he will need someone else to take charge of
the paperwork.


Expect emotional volatility from family members, particularly those who are
living abroad with the deceased.

This article is based on a
feature which first appeared in Global HR magazine, June 2001. To
subscribe to Global HR, click here.

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