Global volatility underlines employer safety obligations

The Salisbury Novichok poisonings, allegedly carried out by Russian agents earlier this year, the attack of random passers-byon London’s Westminster Bridge and last year’s Manchester Arena bombing all highlight the current unpredictability that terror can bring even within an otherwise stable country like the UK.

The situation within more volatile countries such as Iraq, Libya and Somalia is, of course, far more grave compared with what we in the western world have to contend with.

It is also wrong to think to think this is a new trend that the threat of terror is something new. Long before 9/11 there have always been numerous regions across the globe which posed a significant threat, both to the people living there and travellers who are most likely to be in an international danger zone for business matters.

While the world has never been a completely safe place, there is now a much higher degree of responsibility placed on employers when sending their people abroad.

Andrew Newton
Andrew Newton

With a number of normally safe Europe countries having been subjected to terror attacks in recent years, the duty of employer responsibility towards their staff who travel for work must now extend to all parts of the world. Without over-emphasising the existing risk in Europe and other western nations, which remain relatively safe, what has been significant in the current climate is the random and undiscriminating nature of the victims targeted in terror attacks. In the Manchester bombing we saw how even young children were not immune.

While foreign travel is an undoubtedly essential element of doing business or conducting operations for many companies and organisations, the onus is now very much on the employer to ensure their people are safe.The risks posed by such indiscriminate targeting of victims must be carefully considered by employers regardless of where their staff are required to visit.

Firstly there is the potential threat to those employees who travel abroad as well as those who operate in busy UK cities such as London. Secondly, there is the threat to the employer. Since the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 was introduced, British employers now have a legal responsibility to ensure the safety of their travelling employees. The Act puts the onus for duty of care firmly on the company or organisation.  Failure to do so in the event of a tragic incident could result in serious personal legal consequences, including imprisonment, for a firm’s directors.

Even in light of recent incidents, the everyday threat of violence remains relatively rare in western nations when compared with destinations such as those mentioned above and others which are currently on the Foreign Office danger list.

In such places, as we have seen in recent years, the potential of terrorism and kidnap is a very real danger for business travellers. Because of both commercial opportunities and, in many cases, humanitarian requirements which exist in these and other international danger zones it is unlikely the potential threats will stop companies and organisations from sending people there. It is therefore vital that both travellers and their employers take precautions to manage the risks.

This starts with establishing an initial awareness of a region’s volatility – the Foreign Office website is an ideal source for this information – and then determining the employee’s own attitude to risk to ensure that they are aware of any potential dangers within the particular destination they are going to.

Any companies which regularly conduct business abroad should consider tracking methods which can be used as part of this process, from basic means like SMS messaging to implementing more advanced systems which provide 24/7 monitoring. This is an effective means of keeping regular contact with staff and, in the event of a security incident, ensuring they can be provided with a potentially valuable lifeline.

Of course much of this pre-emptive planning comes down to the individual situation, the local knowledge of the people who are on-site and the facilities they have available. Having a robust communication process in place where an employer can make urgent contact with their people in the event of a crisis is, however, an effective means of demonstrating a commitment to their moral responsibility. Given the severe consequences for failing in that duty, it is also a common sense measure.

While it’s important that we don’t go overboard in pursuing security, this needs to be weighed up against the current challenges we face and the enhanced legal responsibility to ensure human safety in an increasingly unstable world.

Andrew Newton, Head of Corporate Travel Europe at Direct Travel