Employers endanger lives, their companies’ reputations and risk court action
every time they send employees on trips overseas and fail to take the correct
measures to safeguard their welfare.
Dave Abbott assesses the risks
Globalisation means health and safety overseas has become a serious issue,
with HR management held accountable for designing and implementing effective
strategies to mitigate risks.
The Health and Safety Executive stipulates that companies are legally
required to demonstrate a "general duty of care" to staff on foreign
assignments. This does not just apply to companies with overseas offices or
production facilities, but any organisation whose staff participates in
international sales trips, vendor assessments or other assignments that could
potentially place them in harm’s way.
Recent incidents highlight the risks of non-compliance, and in an
increasingly litigious society, the legal jeopardy companies risk by not taking
the correct measures to safeguard employees.
The kidnap, torture and murder of three expatriate engineers of the British
company, Granger Telecom in Chechnya in 1998 was headline news and led to legal
proceedings against the company, claiming it was negligent in "the proper
care of its employees".
In "traditional" global businesses, such as oil, gas and minerals,
engineering and so on, ensuring the safety of employees in distant lands is
considered a core HR management competence. However, even these experienced
companies have been exposed to damage when their employees become targets. For
example when four executives of Union Texas Petroleum were murdered in Pakistan
in 1997, the company was sued by the victims’ families for negligence.
But threats do not just encompass "dread" risks like abduction,
assault and robbery or terrorism. The greatest actual risks overseas, which not
only apply to countries that are perceived as dangerous, may be from
"mundane" dangers like road accidents, fires in buildings, or simply
falling ill without proper medical resources. One of the areas all too often
overlooked are the inoculations and the precautions required against the ever
increasing threat of malaria.
Reducing the risks
So what should HR teams be doing to safeguard employees, whether expatriate
or locally hired?
As with all health and safety issues, the first principle is to conduct a
thorough risk assessment. Audit the deployment of staff overseas – who is
actually where? For each assignment or post the potential risks should be
identified, then evaluated. Evaluation means that a risk is appraised firstly
in terms of the likelihood of an incident, and secondly on its potential
consequence. For example, a 30-year-old, physically fit expatriate employee
might reasonably be considered unlikely to suffer a serious acute medical
condition. However, if something does happen then the outcome may depend on
their access to local medical resources.
Some organisations, such as international aid agencies, are taking the risk
management process one stage further and applying exacting minimum standards
when recruiting for posts likely to involve overseas assignments. Although an
organisation must be very careful not to act in a discriminatory manner, it can
ensure that the individuals it sends to difficult or dangerous environments are
physically and psychologically suited to the sort of risks they may encounter,
both in the normal line of work and if things go wrong.
Variations of risks within a country, a region or a city must always be
considered, for example, some cities such as Johannesburg have very high
violent crime statistics but can be safe places to be if you choose home and
workplace locations carefully. On the other hand, some crimes are
geographically diverse, for example, cross-border kidnapping is becoming
prevalent in some parts of Latin America. Remain aware of the day to day
changes going on every region you have a company presence, how they may affect
your personnel and that your security measures are consistent with any changes.
Try and stay one step ahead.
Government bodies offer sources of information on security risks overseas.
Large multinationals with in-house security departments will probably subscribe
to one or more of the proprietary country risk information services, but
information is also available from reports by the US Department of State (www.travel.state.gov) and the British
Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.fco.gov.uk/travel).
It’s worth remembering however, that both have been criticised for phrasing
risk assessments carefully to preserve diplomatic sensitivities.
These services, however, fail to address the more common, everyday dangers
involving road travel and safety of buildings.
Pre-deployment briefings should be given both verbally and in written form
and must include a security assessment of the intended location and advice on
personal security measures. Some measures can be mandatory, others
precautionary. Wherever possible employees’ dependants should be included in
these briefings. If your chief executive enjoys the assignment of a close
protection operative for an overseas trip, the operative’s first insistence
should be to "buckle up" in the car. For executives travelling
without this level of specialist support, training is essential on how to
minimise travel risks. Many precautions are simple, like taking a hotel room
between the second and tenth floors (accessible to fire ladders). In order to
remain inconspicuous, executives could check into a hotel using their own, not
the company name. And because an executive of a Fortune 500 company is an
attractive target for crime, "dressing down" may be a good idea, but
avoid corporate clothing which may be akin to a badge saying "mug
me". Staff who did their share of student backpacking, and the air miles
accumulators who regard themselves as "able to look after
themselves", may not see a need for such briefings and training – but the
corporation has a duty to ensure that they get it anyway.
If accommodation is being arranged for a longer stay, the employee and their
family must be given security advice both in the selection of a suitable
property and in safe behaviour while living there. A good knowledge and
acceptance of local customs and habits may help to avoid offending the local
population and may alleviate any potential security situations. Use a reputable
security firm with a local presence that can advise and provide a 24-hour
on-call service. Typically, an apartment in a serviced block will be more
secure than a detached house, but the "micro-environment" must be
assessed properly. Notwithstanding incidents such as the assassination of the
British diplomat Stephen Saunders in Greece in June last year, travel by private
car is generally the safest mode of transport. In many countries it is
advisable to use local and trusted drivers who have a better knowledge of the
area and the risks.
A pre-travel necessity that is all too often overlooked is ensuring that
employees receive any required inoculations or anti-malarial precautions in
time. To be effective these must be planned in advance to give the jabs or
tablets time to become active.
Risk management strategies should always encompass contingency plans that
are clear, comprehensive and properly communicated. This should include an
evacuation plan covering both medical and security emergencies (confirmed
in-country with the relevant embassy or consulate). Cynics may say that a
contingency plan cannot cover all eventualities, but ArmorGroup’s experience
shows that, in an emergency, a "plan from which to deviate" is
infinitely preferable to having none at all.
Finally, the HR group must ensure a proper link up with the appropriate
insurance providers. Special risks cover may be required and this increasingly
includes a kidnap and ransom (K&R) policy. It is a fact of life that a
ransom often changes hands in resolving kidnappings in many countries. More
crucially, K&R insurers can also arrange specialist crisis management
support, which has been shown statistically to improve survivor rates
The vast majority of overseas assignments are safe and enriching for
employees and their organisations. But the consequences of not applying best
practice to health and safety in international environments can lead to
personal tragedies, organisational jeopardy and legal proceedings.
Dave Abbot is director of ArmorGroup