Overseas travel policies
Updated: Feb 16
Are employers responsible for the safety of their staff when they are travelling in connection with their work? The answer is yes.
But what does this mean for the employer’s practical responsibilities? What should they be doing when an employee announces that they need to attend the production meeting or budget review in Birmingham, Berlin, Barcelona or Beijing?
Basically, an employer needs to do everything that is reasonably practicable to assess the risks that the employee might face, no matter the destination. This means taking steps to make sure that the employee travels by safe means into safe environments; they should be prepared for any unexpected situations by means of crisis training, if it is felt that the destination requires this.
Given the recent history of terrorist attacks and their geographical spread, there is every reason for employers to be anxious about the risk to staff who need to travel abroad. When to this potent mix is added the threat of epidemics such as Zika and conflict scenarios that might threaten to plunge a region into chaos (the attempted Turkish coup, for example), it’s a wonder that any employer with employees travelling overseas sleeps soundly at night.
In order to show that the employer has taken staff safety into account, it is often a good idea to have a travel for work policy in place. So what should be in a staff travel policy, given that the nature of the threat faced by employees will vary widely depending on the destination?
The answer is, unfortunately for those employers who were hoping for a quick and easy job, that it will depend on the circumstances of each employee and their journey. A standard travel policy will be insufficient to cope with the individual situation at every destination. So far as is reasonably practicable, each journey should be risk-assessed, taking into account the destination and the individual.
Elements of the risk assessment might include:
consideration of the location;
the types of transport available;
the state of the roads;
local driving practices such as driving at night without lights;
likely weather conditions; and
the previous experience of the traveller both in general and specifically.
Remember that even if an employee is an experienced traveller and has been to the destination on previous occasions, conditions can change. Therefore, personal experience should never be the only resource used by an employer when carrying out a risk assessment.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) publishes extensive up-to-date information from people on the ground in particular countries and a robust risk assessment will make use of such information.
The employer could also make use of professional risk management organisations, often made up of former military personnel and analysts who can advise and train employees who are making the journey to a location that is considered risky.
If employees have to hire local vehicles on arrival, a reliable hirer should be sourced before arrival, rather than leaving the task to the employee. The same criteria apply to other forms of transport, such as charter flights. Some carriers may have safety records that would give rise to concern and the Foreign Office will be able to provide information.
It is to be hoped that the employee’s journey will be event-free and that they will return in rude health but there are a great many variables, chief amongst which are the lack of resistance to many local pathogens and the lower standards of safety and care in certain countries of the world. This means that there is a likelihood, albeit small, that the employee could be a guest of the local medical system.
The responsible and far-sighted employer will ensure that the employee is fully briefed on what they should do in an emergency and how to access safe and satisfactory medical facilities. The company providing travel insurance will be able to give assistance. If necessary, the employee should ensure that they have the supplies they need to manage any condition they have. It may not always be possible to obtain the relevant medication overseas, even if the employee has the relevant information. Ensuring that the employee has the contact details for the nearest British Consular Office will equip them to react well if something goes wrong and they need to obtain fresh medical supplies in a hurry.
It is important that the travel policy includes advice on keeping safe when travelling, including ways to avoid becoming a victim of crime. The levels and types of crime vary depending on the location and can range from simple street robbery to kidnapping. A policy of checking in at regular intervals can ensure that in the event of the employee falling victim to a crime, the employer will find out about it quickly and instigate a reaction process, liaising with the insurers and any other agency involved.
There are circumstances in which the safety of an employee may be jeopardised by events of such a magnitude that the most prudent course of action is to leave the country. However, such an event may well cut off the regular departure routes, thereby requiring a back-up plan.
The employee needs to be made aware of this, preferably before they leave but definitely before any crisis means that there is the danger of a panicked reaction which may leave the employee in even greater danger.
The awkward truth is that even a comprehensive travel policy will never be able to predict every possible situation. However, having taken steps to embed awareness, training and compliance into the policy and procedures surrounding employee travel, an employer can increase the chance of staff completing their trip in safety, as well as reducing the chance of incidents, claims and reputational damage.
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