Safety first

Sending employees to dangerous places is a necessity for some employers. Ross Bentley finds out how HR can reduce the risks

At the time of year when most HR professionals are preparing for their summer break, Martin Flanders, international strategy HR manager at engineering services company Amec, is set to fly off to a part of the world unlikely to appear on many people’s list of holiday destinations.

In the next few weeks, he is due to travel to the remote island of Sakhlin, an ex-penal colony to the east of Russia and north of Japan, where there are no roads and the sea freezes over for six months of the year. But the island has plenty of oil, and Amec is in the oil business.

“It’s important that I go to wherever we have employees,” says Flanders. “It enables me to get an idea of the conditions they are working in so we can support them.”

Duty of care

Amec provides project management expertise for the likes of Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil, and has employees located in various out-of-the-way and hazardous locations around the world.

The company’s staff work in sub-Saharan Africa, where tropical disease is an issue; on offshore installations and remote areas like Siberia, where the climate can be treacherous and heavy machinery is used in adverse conditions; and in locations such as Iraq and the wider Middle East where terrorism and crime are major concerns.

Amec, says Flanders, takes its duty of care as an employer very seriously and has a series of processes in place to ensure employees are safe and well looked after.

“A great deal of planning happens before we send our people out,” he says. “It’s unacceptable that people might go to work and be in danger.”

Flanders employs an occupational health consultant to travel to destinations to report on the safety of workplace conditions and the standard of medical facilities available.

In addition, the company is signed up with International SOS, a leading medical emergency company, in case people need to be airlifted to hospital. It also calls on security specialists to devise evacuation procedures for employees based in the more volatile locations.

And while much of his time is spent putting precautionary measures in place, he and his colleague, Rob McFarland, international HR manager at Amec, are also kept busy devising initiatives to ease the day-to-day lives of their employees abroad.

A recent example is the cultural-awareness workshops put on for Amec consultants working on the construction of a 45,000-tonne offshore platform near Azerbaijan.

Local rules

Amec’s crew were part of a larger international team, mostly made up of Azerbaijanis and Turkish workers, many of whom were Muslim. The classroom-based workshops, aimed at helping both sets of workers appreciate each other’s cultures, not only helped the teams develop a closer working relationship, but also reduced the chances of misunderstandings developing due to differing social and religious attitudes, says Flanders.

He says it is far more likely that people will get themselves into scrapes flouting local rules, such as public drinking in Muslim countries, than ever face the horror of a terrorist attack, for example.

Paying attention to these issues is not only essential for the smooth and safe running of projects abroad, they are vital if companies are to guard themselves against accusations of negligence, says Julian Roskill, head of the employment group at law firm Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw.

“If you ask employees to work in places out of the ordinary, the onus is on the company to ensure people are properly equipped and not exposed to undue risk,” says Roskill.

He advises companies to take three basic steps. First, ensure employees are properly briefed on any risks they may find, and that they are comfortable with what they are being asked to do. Second, companies must carry out adequate employee assessments, in some cases personality and medical tests, so they are not exposing their people to situations they obviously aren’t able to cope with. And third, employers must provide adequate support, be it medical care, insurance cover, specialised training or security measures, as well as constantly monitoring the changing situation in countries for potential threats.

At mining company BHP Billiton, which has operations in Africa and South America, vice-president of HR, Steve Keogh, says a series of measures are in place to ensure the safety of employees.

“Decisions to expand operations into new countries and regions are governed by a comprehensive review process, where consideration is given to risk management – such as country risk,” he says.

Much of this assessment is carried out by the company’s internal asset protection group, which provides business continuity planning and country security and political risk assessments. BHP Billiton also has a Safe Travel Management System, which monitors employees on business in remote or high-risk areas and provides timely advice to travellers on changes in regional issues and socio-political situations while they are travelling.

Preparation is the key

At the British Red Cross, which has workers in some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots – such as Afghanistan, Darfur in Sudan and Israel – an extensive selection process and training programme aims to make sure the right people are picked and that they are well prepared.

Leanne Taylor, head of international personnel and training for the British Red Cross, says an important element of the recruitment process is to find out how much experience people have had in conflict zones and to ascertain how they will cope in insecure environments.

“Our people are our key contribution, and it is up to us to identify those best equipped to deal with the many situations they may find themselves in,” she says.

The charity is multi-layered and British employees heading for conflict zones also receive briefings in the country from the International Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross Societies.

Preparation is given on a range of security issues, such as how to act at checkpoints, how to check for mines and awareness of snipers. Once staff arrive at a location, further guidance is given by operational people who are up-to-date with the situation on the ground.

But many organisations, which cannot draw on an international network of advisers and experts, are turning to independent security consultants.
The Control Risks Group works with 5,300 organisations worldwide and, at the sharp end of the business, offers security advice and emergency planning. But, says general manager Hannah Kitt, it has also developed several pieces of software to enable companies to prepare and track their staff travelling globally on business.

Although a more mundane aspect of employee care, Kitt says, many organisations struggle to brief employees before they fly off on business and some don’t even know where their people are at any given moment. Kitt recalls one blue-chip company with a workforce of 20,000 which used 65 different agents for travel arrangements. When the World Trade Center came down on 11 September 2001, it took the company seven days to find out whether it had any employees in New York at the time.

Psychometric tests

Knowing where staff are located is no problem for Fiona Brazil, head of personnel at the British Antarctica Survey (BAS). She is responsible for the selection and well-being of 450 people working in some of the world’s most remote and uninhabited locations, at five research stations in and around Antarctica.

As well as scientists and academics, these small communities require all sorts of skilled workers, from plumbers and boat handlers to doctors and chefs.

But skills are not enough. Isolation can be a real issue for people living near the South Pole for up to a year at a time, so Brazil uses a number of measures, including psychometric tests, to determine people who can best survive working in remote areas in tight-knit teams.

Further preparation and assessment happens when candidates are taken on a week’s practical course in Derbyshire to test outdoor equipment and tents. Obviously, the other great threats facing employees sent to Antarctica are the extreme low temperatures and bad weather.

But, on the whole, the levels of comfort on BAS research stations are high, according to Brazil, who is due to make her second visit to the region this November. In fact, one chef currently working in Antarctica previously worked for the Savoy.

Some 46% of staff do more than one stint in Antarctica with BAS. But it’s not the food that keeps them coming back.

“It’s the comradeship, the feeling they are doing positive work, the scenery and wildlife that make working here so attractive,” says Brazil. “Spending time in Antarctica really is a life-changing experience.”

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How to stay safe

Published earlier this year, The Counter Terrorist Handbook contains simple advice for business travellers and expats working in hazardous locations. “Today, security has to be a habit for the business traveller,” says the author James Jackson.

Here he offers some simple rules for foreign work and travel:

  • Keep informed about the local situation
  • Do not be ostentatious – avoid looking like a moneyed Westerner
  • Ascertain local laws and customs
  • Keep your schedule secure
  • Don’t display company logos – to avoid anti-globalisation sentiments
  • Do not work late and alone
  • Bear security in mind when choosing accommodation
  • Always walk on busy, well-travelled streets
  • Always reverse park – so you can pull out quickly if you need to
  • Insist on access control at offices

Personnel Today has five copies of Jackson’s book to give away in a prize draw. To enter, e-mail, putting ‘Book competition’ in the subject line. Please be sure to include your name, job title and address. The first five names out of the hat will win. Closing date for entries is 5pm on Monday 18 July 2005.

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