Risk assessment

Safe travels

Organisations that send employees abroad should ensure their safety, security and medical support by following several key steps.

Rapid globalisation, and the increasing interconnectedness that comes with it, has resulted in more people travelling for work or being stationed abroad. 

Businesses are becoming much more intelligent at recognising workforce diversity and this places further demands on their duty of care to their employees, so they are recognised on an individual basis. Businesses now understand, recognise and support diversity.

Although these are positive developments, they call for a new approach to managing the safety and health risks associated with international travel and employment overseas. Many organisations struggle to know how best to keep employees and expats safe.

However, by implementing some key steps, and working with external experts where necessary, employers can put in place safeguards to minimise the risk of incidents.

Duty of care

Any responsible employer will understand that it has a moral obligation to take reasonable care of its employees, regardless of where they are operating. Under UK common law, employers also have a legal duty. Crucially, this duty of care continues when employees travel to work in other locations, no matter how long the assignment’s tenure.

Although the employer’s duty of care is not absolute, it is still required to show that it has acted “reasonably” in any given situation. To ensure its actions are not unreasonable, the main requirements for an employer are:

  • having policies in place that cover travel safety, health and security (and actively enforcing these);
  • carrying out tailored risk assessments to properly understand the relevant health, safety and security risks that employees may face when abroad;
  • putting a system in place that enables it to pinpoint its workers’ locations to monitor their safety;
  • testing systems to ensure they work effectively;
  • preparing and educating employees about the location they will be working in;
  • arranging extra training if workers will be travelling to high-risk areas;
  • putting in place systems to stay up-to-date with changing risks, and ensuring this information can be shared quickly with the employees;
  • providing workers with access to a 24-hour helpline;
  • referring employees to medical and security travel assistance providers and institutions, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, so that they remain up-to-date on the latest travel alerts.

The first case study (see ‘Misled on malaria risk’ box, below) shows what can happen when an employer fails to exercise its duty of care. 

Beyond the clear moral and legal obligations underpinning an employer’s duty of care, there are also significant business benefits to be gained by taking measures to protect a mobile workforce. 

A joint study by International SOS and Prevent found that every dollar invested in medical check programmes brought a return ranging from $1.60 to $2.53 (bit.ly/1M7257H).


Misled on malaria risk 

Before leaving on a trip to West Africa, a worker was told by his employer that he did not need to worry about contracting malaria because he would be working on a remote offshore oil rig. As a result of this advice, he took no anti-malarial medication with him. However, when he was bitten by a mosquito during an overnight stay on his way to the oil rig, he developed a fatal malarial infection.

The High Court in London found that the employer had failed in its duty of care to the employee, because the assignment included stopovers to and from his final destination (bit.ly/2mcLHNp).


Assess and manage risks

Travel risks differ between employees and destinations, so individualised risk assessments need to be carried out before any trip.

From a medical perspective, a risk assessment should include vaccination status and requirement, as well as any current and past health issues. On the security side, the assessment should cover whether the worker has been to the country before, or to destinations presenting a similar risk. It is important to bear in mind whether the individual is considered vulnerable because of their gender, religion or sexual orientation. The assessment should also consider the support the worker can expect in the country, and the duration of the trip. Employers should look carefully at the actual travel details alongside an assessment of the worker’s behaviour around risk.

As well as risk assessments, companies should make sure that they are taking active preventive measures that are documented and auditable. There are many ways that risks can be controlled, but the measures selected should depend on the level and type of risk. By taking active steps to prevent accidents or minimise the negative consequences, organisations will not only help to better protect their employees but ultimately also safeguard their own reputation.

Travel preparation

As in many parts of business, planning is integral to travel safety. To reduce exposure to risk and to limit the consequences that might occur, organisations and employees should consider the following:

Security: there should be an awareness of the specific risks an individual worker may be exposed to in the country and city to which they will be travelling or assigned. This should then inform other issues, including the choice of transport, driving patterns and the impact of local laws in an emergency.

Organisations should also develop escalation plans, detailing key contacts and safe locations, and provide training so that employees and their families can act autonomously if needed. The plan should also include an escalation matrix, which will allow organisations to assess when they may need to consider evacuating the premises.

Medical: Many health risks posed by international travel can be anticipated, and putting in place a process to identify (and prevent) these risks is the employer’s responsibility. Alongside identifying any hazards and implementing programmes to reduce their risk, employers should provide information about potential health issues, and encourage employees to carry out assessments with a specialist physician well in advance of their travel.

However, being informed and educated is not always enough. Travelling workers should also be given a list of trusted healthcare practitioners and facilities at their destination. The availability and reliability of emergency response services, and the location of the nearest 24/7 emergency department, at the employee’s destination must also be confirmed ahead of their trip.

Neither medical nor security risks are static, so individuals should have access to reliable information about evolving threats in the form of proactive alerts that are sent to the traveller. Ideally, these should be automatic and tailored to the worker’s itinerary.

The second case study (below) shows how travel alerts helped one expat to remain safe in Burkina Faso in west Africa.


Travel alerts keep expat safe

One of International SOS’s members on assignment in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, west Africa, had travelled to the country’s second largest city, Bobo Dioulasso, for business. On the day he was due to travel back, news emerged that Ouagadougou had been seized in a military coup and he was advised, through the company’s travel security alerts, to stay at a secure location.

However, he realised that he was running out of his malaria medication and was therefore anxious to get home. He communicated his location and situation.

The company was able to reassure him by regularly sharing updates on the evolving security situation, and telling him where to find a credible local medical provider. The provider supplied him with anti-malaria medication while he waited for further instruction from International SOS’s security team.


Changing demographic

International SOS’s report Global Business Resilience Trend Watch 2019 (bit.ly/2mHzGQ9), which was carried out with Ipsos MORI, revealed that travel policies are not keeping up with the changing needs of a modern workforce. The research showed that only 26% of organisations make specific provisions for female travellers, and even fewer provide for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers (9%) or those with disabilities (10%).

One possible explanation may be that travel security managers are unsure about whether it is reasonable to segment travellers and provide them with gender-specific travel advice, for instance. Not only is there a fear of being seen as sexist or patronising, but there is also a worry that they may face a backlash from the travellers themselves for treating them differently. 

But since the risks faced by different groups vary, organisations need to provide travel protection that reflects this. Ultimately, this will not just avoid negative publicity but also empower travellers to have safe and productive business trips.

Some things that planning organisations can do to support their diverse mobile employees include: providing gender-specific pre-trip briefings, and holding suppliers – such as hotels – accountable by ensuring they have policies to cater for individual needs, such as those of people with disabilities.


Medical and security risks are not static, so individuals should have access to reliable information about evolving threats


Responding to emergencies

Should there be an emergency, it is critical that travelling workers, or expats, know whom they need 

to contact, and how to do so.

Before an employee departs for overseas their employer must also have considered the “what if?” question, with a clearly identified chain of responsibility and escalation. Small incidents sometimes have the potential to escalate into major ones, so having an emergency plan in place is critical.

Two questions to consider when putting this together are, “Is there a person able to make a decision (including about any financial issues) to support a worker confronted with an imminent, dangerous situation?”; and “Is there someone able to provide them with medical and security advice and support on the ground?”. 

Ultimately, the emergency plan should cover these essentials:

  • preparedness (to deal with an emergency);
  • mitigation (measures to reduce the severity of the situation);
  • response (measures to deal with the emergency);
  • recovery (measures to assist workers and ensure business continuity after the crisis).

The ideas, actions and examples outlined here provide an overview of best practice for keeping a mobile workforce safe and secure. As such, they are applicable to any organisation with remote or travelling employees.

The support needed to implement these steps – and especially during an incident – may be complex, so having access to a reliable medical and security assistance provider, with knowledge of any local environment, is important. 

By working together to put these steps into practice, organisations will not only meet their duty of care but also improve their bottom line. On the other hand, failing to do so risks putting their employees and reputation in danger. 

Image credit | Getty


is a travel manager at International SOS
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