The world seems to be getting smaller, but it isn’t getting safer for overseas business travellers. Infectious diseases such as TB and tick-borne encephalitis are becoming increasingly common, cases of deep-vein thrombosis have hit the headlines, and even bird flu is a consideration for staff travelling to regions affected by this virus.
So what is the role of employers? Do they need to inform staff travelling overseas for work of the risks, and help them to prepare, or are individual staff members responsible for everything?
There is plenty of advice available – the challenge is to locate the information relevant to specific destinations.
According to the government body the National Travel Health Network and Centre (Nathnac), employers should apply the same duty of care to foreign travel as they do to all aspects of employee safety. They should also ensure that staff have access to good, up-to-date information. But this is an area that presents particular risks which need to be clearly understood.
So HR should always take specialist medical advice about the preparations employees need to make, either from an in-house occupational health team, or external medical specialists.
John Mathewson, business manager at Nathnac, stresses that as long as common-sense guidelines are followed, HR departments should play down panic about global health scares.
“While there have been increases in some diseases, the risk of business travellers catching them is relatively small,” he says.
The employees most at risk are those who are going to work in tropical and sub-tropical areas of the world those visiting friends and relatives overseas and people who are taking a ‘gap’ break and back-packing around the world.
Back-packers and people visiting friends and family are more likely to go off the beaten track, and should therefore prepare themselves particularly carefully, advises Nathnac.
But HR should ensure that staff members who are travelling overseas take reasonable precautions.
“What is important is that for any overseas trip a proper ‘risk assessment’ is carried out on behalf of the employer by a suitable health adviser, such as a specialist travel clinic or travel health nurse,” says Mathewson.
Forward planning is essential. For instance, an anti-malarial vaccination course needs to start at least six weeks before the trip.
“Staying healthy abroad is not just about having a vaccination or taking a few tablets it’s about fully appreciating the associated risks and avoiding them as far as possible,” he warns.
The Nathnac website has country-specific advice, which is linked to its surveillance database. It also provides information on disease risks and any outbreaks.
While specific health risks may vary, recommended travel precautions include:
- Before the trip, assess the potential health risks for the country the employee is visiting. These will vary depending on what parts of the country they will visit, the time of year, and the kind of accommodation they will stay in.
- Ensure that staff travelling abroad have consulted their GP or a specialist travel health clinic, received general health advice, and arranged any immunisations and anti-malarial medication required. Health preparations should begin at least two months before the trip.
- If your organisation frequently sends employees overseas, consider vaccinating this group in anticipation of overseas assignments. For example, a first yellow fever vaccination certificate is not valid for 10 days, and many vaccines take several weeks to become effective.
- There have been no cases of foreign visitors contracting the H5N1 Asian avian flu. But health specialists advise employees with existing chest problems or similar health concerns to get an influenza vaccine against more common forms of flu. The flu season in the southern hemisphere lasts from April to November.
Beware of tick bites
The Health Protection Agency has warned that walkers in woodland, heath land or some parkland areas should be wary of the risk of tick bites this summer. Ticks carrying Lyme disease are most likely to affect holidaymakers in late spring, early summer and autumn. The most common symptoms are a slowly expanding rash which spreads out from a tick bite, normally after one or two weeks. Other potential symptoms include tiredness, headaches, muscle pain and joint pain.
Skin cancer threat to young
One-third of young British holidaymakers will double their chances of developing skin cancer this year because they plan to get suntanned on the beach, according to the charity Cancer Research UK. Some 30% of 16- to 24-year-olds say they plan to get a tan on their summer holiday, and a further 30% said this might happen, in spite of the fact that almost 2,000 Britons a year die of skin cancer.
Make everyone H&S experts
Health and safety issues should be the concern of the whole workforce, not just of health and safety professionals, according to the Health and Safety Commission. Giving his annual Lowry Lecture, commission chairman Bill Callaghan stressed that the link between good health and safety and active employee involvement was a vital one, and called on health and safety specialists to work more closely with their HR colleagues.