For most employers, health and safety issues are generally about avoiding workplace slips and trips or minor hazards. But it is quite different when you are sending staff to countries or regions where serious injury or death is a very real threat.
The recent murders and kidnappings of civilians suggest dispatching employees to the Middle East, Africa or South America might seem the antithesis of good health and safety practice.
The outsourcing of many support activities once performed by troops means civilians are increasingly working in war zones. Last summer in Iraq, Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), the engineering subsidiary of US conglomerate Halliburton, was cooking for more than 50,000 soldiers a day.
So what are an organisation’s responsibilities when, for example, its employee is working in Basra, when they are usually based in Birmingham?
In assessing risk, the level of exposure is clearly determined by the country in question and the work activity – properly tailored risk assessments focusing on particular employees, the work to be performed and the place of work are all vital.
Failure to adequately assess risk may give rise to both civil and criminal liability. A company may be prosecuted under the Health and Safety at Work Act, warned Chris Davies, employment lawyer at law firm Halliwell. Any conviction could result in hefty fines.
“There is an implied term in every contract of employment that an employer will provide a safe workplace for every employee,” Davies said.
“In countries such as Iraq, the employer obviously can’t guarantee safety, so it is important that staff are fully advised.
“The employer should consider a signed agreement that shows that the employee is aware of and understands the risks of working in that country,” he added.
However, higher risk often means higher rewards. The typical salary for a KBR truck driver in Iraq is about $80,000 (42,400) a year – more than twice what the job might pay in the US. “Many employees will be keen to go for the extra money, and here again employers have a responsibility,” said Davies. “An inexperienced 17-year-old is obviously not the best candidate.”
Andrew Thompson, international HR director at aid agency Oxfam, agreed. “We won’t take any unnecessary risks. There are a number of behaviours that can put you in danger. So we look at personal conduct, the company that people keep and past personal judgements. We work in unique situations that require great creativity, so you need people who are aware of that,” he said.
Derek Manuel, global HR director at charity Save the Children, which has 4,000 employees working outside the UK, said: “We deliberately go into dangerous and hostile environments, so we are looking for people who are a lot more risk-aware than your usual business traveller.”
Employers sending people to dangerous places need to be honest about what they are doing and why they are doing it. That means thinking early on about the risks involved. It also means giving staff good advance training, according to Manuel.
“Employees get a thorough briefing on every aspect, which will include external professional advice on risks, government information and advice from people on the ground. They then get a briefing when they arrive, which is more to do with the local rules of engagement,” he said.
Oxfam works along the same lines. Thompson called his organisation’s approach almost “military-like”.
Looking after returning employees is also an important concern. Both Oxfam and Save the Children offer rest and recuperation breaks on top of annual leave, and constantly monitor for signs of stress and fatigue. Oxfam also has a network of counsellors to deal with any psychological issues that might arise.
It is more difficult for commercial companies to source this kind of guidance. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office issues travel advice on its website (www.fco.gov.uk), and does offer security information for businesses operating overseas. How-ever, it doesn’t clearly outline the responsibilities of employers.
Rachel Briggs, of the Foreign Policy Centre think-tank, suggested that in the same way the UK has a domestic Health & Safety Executive (HSE) to define workplace risks – and what is reasonable to expect employers to do to mitigate them – it needs guidelines to cover citizens working overseas.
But Thompson thinks any such framework is unlikely. “Situations vary so much from country to country, it would be incredibly difficult because health and safety is not respected in other countries as it is in the UK,” he said.
A lot of the time it comes down to individual responsibility. “We do take our duty of care very seriously,” said Thompson. “But adults can and will make their own risk assessments.”
Top 10 most dangerous places
– North Korea
– Papua New Guinea
Assessing the risk: key points to consider
– Country infrastructure, political, medical and security risks
– Individual risk profile
– Cultural awareness and training
– Personal safety and security training
– Communications arrangements
– Travel and accommodation details
– Information management
– Contingency and emergency strategy and response
– Debriefing strategy
Source: Institution of Occupational Safety and Health
For more guidance on risk assessments, go to www.iosh.co.uk/files/technical/ACFD6BF%2Epdf