What's Your Duty of Care When Disaster Strikes?

What's Your Duty of Care When Disaster Strikes?



With the earlier natural disasters in Australia and the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis that is sweeping the world, a topic that is top of mind for many businesses this year is travel risk management: how do you keep your travelling employees safe when they’re on the road? It is largely influenced by the duty of care that businesses have to their employees.

Under Australia’s Workplace Health and Safety Act of 2011, companies are responsible for their employees while they’re travelling domestically and overseas. And there’s a good reason why being aware of your responsibilities and putting measures in place to support your travellers is crucial: in 2019, Cover-More handled more than 88,000 registered claims and managed more than 40,000 overseas emergency medical assistance claims.

So, what happens when an unexpected disaster strikes and impacts your employee or their travel plans? We spoke with Gabi Everingham, Product Strategy Manager for Flight Centre Travel Group's SME house of brands, about the duty of care that a business has to their travelling employees in times of crisis.

Duty of care in a crisis

Companies have an obligation to look after their employees in general, but they have a particular duty of care when their employees are travelling for work on their behalf. Duty of care applies both domestically and internationally; however the risks associated with travel become more significant when the employees are going to less common or unknown regions, locations where an employee may have increased risk of experiencing natural disasters, increased personal risk, or locations with sub-par medical facilities and resources.

According to Australia’s WHS legislation, employers are required to take ‘reasonable care’ to avoid potential risk or injury to their employees. They must also make ‘reasonably practicable’ decisions about their employees’ travel plans; that is, considering if it’s a reasonable decision to make, taking into account all the risks and factors of the situation.

When disaster strikes before travel

If there’s an expected level of danger associated with travelling to the destination, such as recent unrest, an impending natural disaster or health concern, consider whether travel to the area is essential and adjust travel plans appropriately.

“An employer’s duty of care includes assessing the level of risk of travelling to that particular area and whether it's worth the traveller going. Discuss whether the particular reason for travel is necessary right now; can the trip be delayed or can the work be undertaken by an alternative means. Having a Business Continuity Plan and Crisis Management Team or plan as a standard business practice will reduce time wasted making these decisions when risks arise,” says Gabi.

“If you look at the COVID-19 situation and people travelling to and from affected areas, you would update your travel policy and send out clear communications within the company to advise changes to travel to affected areas.”

In the case of a location impacted by a disaster, such as Australia’s regions affected by bushfire or localised flooding, you should also consider if travel to the area will be beneficial to the region or if it will hamper recovery efforts. Check the status around visitation, including any changes to airport or transport operations, whether locations on the travel itinerary have been affected and any new or temporary procedures that might be in place.

When disaster strikes while an employee is travelling

Despite your considered plans, the unpredictable happens, and often. If a crisis erupts in the region where your travelling employee is, you will need to be able to act fast to support them. It may be a case of contacting your support network, such as your business travel insurance provider, who can assist with coordinating the evacuation of your employee from the area.

Depending on the scale and severity of the event, a government agency or department may step in to provide support, such as with the Australian Government’s evacuation of nationals from China in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, and their subsequent quarantine on Christmas Island. In this case, while the government may coordinate logistics and enforce restrictions, the employer doesn't merely relinquish their duty of care.

“The employer’s duty of care is constant when an employee is working and travelling on their behalf.  However, the company may work with any government agencies or organisations that are deployed at the time in these particular situations or crisis events. Local authority or government rules and advice may supersede your company’s travel policy, and its necessary to follow the guidelines of the authorities in both Australia and the location where the traveller is for the best solution." says Gabi.

Whether travel plans are put on hold or disrupted mid-trip, having policies in place ahead of time will ensure an efficient response when it's needed most, says Gabi: "It's about ensuring that businesses have the right resources and plans in place so their travelling employees are taken care of anywhere they are.”

Plan and manage travel risk

You can improve the duty of care you extend to your employees by planning, providing tools (such as the FCTG Travel News Hub) and having a solid travel policy in place.

“As much as possible, prepare your travellers before they travel. Provide them with resources and guidelines for locations to research before they go and to have on hand while travelling, such as apps with live travel alerts, links to government websites and your emergency procedures. There are travel apps they can check as they go through different parts of the world that will give them information on particular customs, so they can check to ensure they’re doing the right thing for where they are. Registering with systems like the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller is also a suggestion so that all bases are covered,” says Gabi.

If your business doesn't travel to particular at-risk areas regularly, you may not have standard policies stipulated for each destination. Putting a plan in place for a crisis goes hand-in-hand with having a travel manager working with your business, as they have access to resources that will assist in these particular situations.

Consolidating all your travel bookings in one place means you can easily see who of your employees is travelling in particular regions at that time, and if using a TMC they will be able to report on this for you. "With that kind of visibility, we’d work with risk management providers that may be engaged by the business and with the insurance company to efficiently source the best plan B to get those travellers out of emergency situations,” says Gabi.

Develop a Duty of Care Plan

Your business should have a robust travel policy in place and ensure that elements in the policy are current and constantly updated, reflecting changes in regions around the world. Businesses are also required to monitor and provide proactive communication with employees during a crisis. You need to have current records so you can notify next of kin quickly if there's an emergency.

“Consider how you will track where your employees are while travelling and how you’ll contact them; providing the right contacts and phone numbers for employees to access when needed; and resources available in case of emergency, such as needing a medical flight for evacuation. Ensure your policies and procedures are all up to date and then communicate them to your travellers, making sure they know where to source them in the future. Its crucial to revisit travel policy, insurance and emergency procedures regularly, not just when there’s an actual situation; its about assuming the worst and having a plan,” says Gabi.

Your policies should also include risk management procedures, with clear information and guidelines on how to manage emergencies and crisis events. As well as maintaining a current travel policy, the foundations of an effective travel risk management plan include:

  • Having a comprehensive travel insurance policy in place;
  • Providing the right tools and support lines to your travelling staff;
  • Utilising travel risk management services;
  • Consolidating your bookings and choosing your suppliers carefully;
  • Placing travellers at the heart of your travel policy; and
  • Having a business continuity plan.

Put your travellers first

If you’re ready to put your travelling employees’ health, safety and wellbeing first, you can read our Starter Kit to Travel Risk Management and talk to one of our dedicated Travel Managers about developing a Duty of Care Plan.

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