risks ahead sign

An employee working for your firm in a remote foreign location is seriously injured in a car accident. While unconscious, he's robbed at the scene, leaving him with no identification. What's worse, no one is even aware this has occurred. What happens when no one, including his family, can locate your employee?

A military coup leaves the expats who staff an overseas company office stranded, with no plan in place to ensure their safety and evacuation. How do you get them out, and how do you deal with their concerned family and the publicity your company will face?

An employee becomes sick while traveling internationally and needs immediate access to health care. What will you do to ensure that she has fast access to quality medical services?

Because trade has become more global, these days more Canadian companies have employees travelling overseas or employed in offices in foreign countries. Many of these firms are finding themselves doing business in parts of the world they know little about, and they haven't adopted the practices needed to protect and support employees working or travelling overseas.

With the intense focus on compliance and security in recent years, you'd be hard pressed to find a company that is unaware of the risks entailed in shipping goods around the world. Many businesses have developed risk-mitigation strategies to deal with catastrophic events in their supply chains. But very few SMEs have taken steps to guard against the risks involved in sending their people around the globe.

Employees hop on a plane at a moment's notice, with little thought beyond how bad the lineup at Customs will be. But once you have employees working abroad for you, that remote location becomes their workplace and you are legally required to ensure their safety. This concept, known as "duty of care," is a critical consideration for any company doing business internationally.

To ensure that you've extended proper duty of care to employees working or travelling for your business  outside Canada, you must ensure that:

  • You have informed your employees of known threats to their health and safety and educated them accordingly. For instance, if you know that they will be traveling in an area at risk for malaria, you must not only tell them this fact, but let them know the risks of malaria and the preventative measures they can take to avoid being infected.
  • You have put into place appropriate prevention programs. If your overseas office is in an area where kidnapping is rampant, you may want to include programs that ensure your employees are provided with trained security personnel, and that the employees themselves have been trained in ways to avoid risk.
  • You have developed health and safety policies and programs.

There are three key reasons why employers must do this. The first consideration is legal. Bill C-45—legislation that amended the federal Criminal Code and established legal responsibilities for employers, as well as new rules for attributing criminal liability to organizations—legalized duty of care, and companies that fail to prove they have taken the necessary measures to protect their employees could face criminal prosecution. The second consideration is moral: it's just the right thing to do. This often falls under a company's commitment, if it has made one, to corporate social responsibility. The third consideration is the cost-benefit analysis. What would it cost you in time and money to put a plan in place compared to the cost to your firm's reputation and bottom line should something go terribly wrong?

Large, multinational companies, for the most part, have plans in place and have developed mechanisms to mitigate risks to employees. Unfortunately, smaller businesses often fail to invest because they feel that it would be cost-prohibitive. But this approach is short-sighted. Should a crisis occur, the financial, legal and reputational costs could do great harm to your company—or even put it out of business.

Taking measures to demonstrate duty of care may be easier than you think. In fact, most companies, even smaller ones, have pieces already in place. Previously established health and safety plans and procedures can all be built upon to create an effective program. And there are multiple organizations and service providers who can help.

As a first step, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety offers an e-learning course called Travel Safety for Canadian Businesses, which covers the basics. Enrolling employees in courses such as this will demonstrate that some training and preparation has taken place. There are also private health-care clinics that provide travel advice and care before, during and after travel, as well as many consulting organizations that offer risk mitigation and emergency planning services.

At the end of the day, it is up to you to take measures to ensure that your employees are safe and that you've minimized the risks of business travel as much as possible. If you're like most businesses, you recognize that your employees are your most important asset. That's why it's just as important to protect your people as carefully outside our borders as you do at home.

Joy Nott is president of I.E.Canada, the Canadian Association of Importers and Exporters, and has more than 20 years of experience in customs compliance. Prior to joining I.E.Canada, she was a vice-president and managing consultant for JPMorgan Global Trade Management Services.

More columns by Joy Nott

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