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Three Tips to Protect Employees Overseas

Employers have a legal and moral duty to protect their employees from harm where the harm can be reasonably anticipated.

May 21, 2014

With the globalization of the marketplace, more employers are sending employees overseas to work.

While the business opportunities for a global employer may be limitless, so is the potential liability for failing to protect employees from myriad dangers they could face while traveling or working abroad.

From political upheaval in the Ukraine to a breakout of viral hemorrhagic fever in Guinea to kidnapping in Pakistan or a poisonous spider bite in Australia, employers have a legal and moral duty to protect their employees from harm where the harm can be reasonably anticipated. Advanced planning can help employers avoid or mitigate any emergencies that might occur. 

1.    Assess risks and develop a plan:

A thorough risk assessment should be made before sending any employees overseas. Maybe the travel destination is not known for kidnappings political unrest or terrorism, but what if an employee falls in the shower and hits his head? What if the employee is in a serious car accident? Will your U.S. medical insurance cover the employee’s medical expenses? Will the employee be covered under state workers’ compensation plans even while on overseas assignment?

Employers may want to contract with a specialty firm that provides in-country medical and evacuation services in the event of a medical emergency.    

At a minimum, employers should be familiar with the country’s medical system and understand what an employee needs to do to access emergency medical care. What if the employee needs surgery? Is the local blood supply safe? Depending on the destination-country’s health care system, employers may want to consider contracting with a local medical group to provide care or evaluate an employee’s need for evacuation.

Prudent employers will also plan for less likely possibilities. What if the employee or a close family member is kidnapped? How will employees be assisted in the event of prolonged political unrest or rioting?

The U.S. State Department website (state.gov) is a good place to start with any risk assessment, and provides a helpful outline of risks for a particular country. An international risk management firm also may be able to assist the employer to determine a plan for any particular country, and may even be able to provide in-country assistance should a security or medical emergency arise. 

2.    Train employees before departure:

While it is always a good idea to provide employees with cultural sensitivity training for the travel destination, personal safety and security training targeted to the travel destination should be included, and employees should be aware of any plans to protect their safety. The most frequent problems encountered by employees traveling overseas are petty theft and minor illnesses, but even minor incidents can escalate into big problems if the employee is unprepared.

In addition to warning employees about the inherent risks of travel and any specific risks associated with the travel destination, employers should spell out the types of assistance available and give contact information for emergencies. Before designating a resource, be sure that a person or group is available at all times (employees may be traveling to a country in a different time zone) and has enough local knowledge to assist in the event of a crisis.

3.    Track your traveling employees:

Although employers must be sensitive to employee privacy concerns, prudent employers should have a general sense of where their employees are at all times. Consider asking employees to “check-in” whenever they arrive in or leave a country, and security or human resources staff should continually monitor the political and security situation in each country to which employees travel.  

Danielle S. Urban is an attorney in the Denver office of national labor and employment law firm Fisher & Phillips. Contact her at durban@laborlawyers.com. To comment, email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.