More and more organisations are sending staff on International travel, a trend that is expected to continue to increase. In sending staff abroad employers continue to have a duty of care for those employees and need a system in place to assess any risks and manage those risks. In a report issued by the European safety agency OSHA this month it was highlighted that civil obligations owed by employers in respect of the health and safety of employees and their families sent abroad on such assignments, are likely to apply regardless of whether any cross-border agreements exist or not (cross border agreements exist in Europe regarding health and safety requirements).
While the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) applies to UK workplaces only, the UK Government, through its Business Link website, makes it clear that a similar standard of care is expected to be applied to employees overseas.
Under civil law duty of care, there is a potential for employees or dependants to sue employers if illness, injury or death occurs. While many cases are settled out of court, there are precedents for litigation
Cawthorn v Freshfields (1997)
A trainee solicitor, with law firm Freshfields, contracted dysentery while working in Ghana. After her illness and absence from work, she sued her employer, claiming that it was negligent for not ensuring that she had received the proper vaccinations or providing her with dietary and other preventative health advice.
Settled out of court.
Palfrey v ARC Offshore Ltd (2001)
An employee of a UK company died from malaria caught while on assignment in West Africa. Prior to leaving, the UK employer advised the employee to seek medical advice regarding the advisable vaccinations and prophylactics. The employee told his employer that he understood the need to seek medical advice but failed to do so. The employee’s widow brought a claim for damages against the employer.
Court awarded damages for the employer’s breach of duty of care, stating that the employer had a minimum responsibility to ascertain and make available to the employee publicly available information on health hazards (Claus, 2009).
Employers should be undertaking risk assessments for such trips, taking into account elements such as political or environmental risks, medical requirements etc (interesting to note that during the air travel disruption in 2010 caused by the ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajokull eruption in Iceland one of the main issues for people stuck abroad was individuals running out of personal medical supplies and not knowing were or how to obtain more).