What do employers need to consider to ensure they provide adequate duty of care for travelling workers?
In 2012, the Kalgoorlie Magistrate’s Court found an employment consultancy guilty of not fulfilling their duty of care and maintaining a safe workplace when two of their female employees became lost in the Great Victorian Desert, according to a report by the Australian Financial Review.
The employees had embarked on a 10-hour drive on unmarked, narrow tracks as part of an “outreach visit” to a remote Aboriginal settlement.
Provided with a four-wheel drive vehicle, but no map or GPS, not only had they not received training on travelling in remote areas, they hadn’t been told that the emergency number for the satellite phone was 911, rather than 000.
“After driving for 23 hours,” says the writer, “they eventually found an unmanned roadhouse with a public phone which they used to contact their families.”
Similar incidents are far too common, says Matt Goss, managing director at Concur Australia & New Zealand, a travel and expense management company.
“It’s amazing how many companies wouldn’t know what to do if their employee was involved in a crisis here or travelling for work overseas,” he says. “Some employers don’t even have their employees’ next-of-kin details.”
It all adds up to increased vulnerabilities for travelling employees – and an obligation for organisations to step up their game, David Reimer, vice-president and general manager at American Express Business Travel told the Australian Financial Review.
“Crises happen anywhere at any time, and companies have a growing level of responsibility to employees when they travel for work or business,” he says.
(Read our article about how the law is still catching up to the gig economy).
Why employers need to look left, right, then left again
Regardless of the size and location of a business, organisations are legally required to monitor employees, and to provide proactive communication with employees during crisis events.
An employer’s duty of care towards employees who are travelling internationally can become a complex matter. Work health and safety laws don’t always deal explicitly with international travel, says Trent Forno, a partner at Minter Ellison Lawyers who specialises in employment.
He says it’s prudent for businesses that send employees on overseas assignments to assume that Australian work health and safety laws will apply to the whole of the assignment.
Alison Baker, partner at Hall & Wilcox, says that to protect themselves legally, employers must be able to prove they have “taken reasonable steps” to ensure their health and safety while travelling, including having conducted a risk assessment and suitable training.
Risk assessments include considerations such as:
- Any travel warnings for the overseas destination;
- The employee’s general health and any medical reasons why they should not travel overseas;
- Health and safety risks associated with performing work overseas. For example, risks associated with the layout of the overseas workplace, the equipment used, and the type and condition of the amenities available at the overseas workplace;
- Any potential personal safety threats associated with the overseas destination.
In addition to a risk assessment, employees travelling overseas should be provided with appropriate training on the hazards and risks associated with the intended travel. For example:
- Emergency procedures and evacuation plans while overseas.
- Steps the employee can take to minimise the risks associated with long haul flights,
- The consequences of consuming unreliable and unsafe food regarding the particular destination, and what food/drinks may be unsafe.
- Any personal safety threats associated with the overseas location and the steps the employee can take to minimise the risk.
- Other measures employers need to consider include adequate accommodation and communications with the employee. Any vaccinations and visas need to be taken care of. In some cases, chaperones and security may be required.
Look out for ‘Business Travel’, an article looking at the growing trend for employees to combine work and play by extending business trips into holidays, in the September 2017 issue of HRM magazine.
Until then, have you booked your flights to the AHRI National Convention and Exhibition 2017 in Sydney (21−23 August)? Registration closes 11 August.