The perils of business travel: Are your employees safe?

How can employers prepare staff for natural disasters while travelling or working abroad?

The perils of business travel: Are your employees safe?

By Yoshiro Fukuma and Dr David Teo

Asia has been battered with a torrent of natural disasters over the past two months, leaving many casualties, displaced families, and levelled infrastructure.

These disasters are stark reminders that our vulnerability to natural disasters cannot be ignored, even as the global environment remains fraught with rising geo-political tension and an ever-present threat of terrorism.

For example, Lombok saw more than 3,000 foreigners evacuated in the aftermath of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake while the most recent tremors in Sulawesi saw more than 60 foreigners evacuated.

A recent global study by market research organisation Ipsos MORI revealed 43% of organisations surveyed have modified travel itineraries due to disruptions triggered by natural disasters.

While emergency response and services in these countries have improved significantly over the years, some recent reports have also revealed there are still not enough resources to help foreigners during these catastrophes.

This group of affected people are often reported to be at a loss during disasters, with little to no communication on the next steps of action due to an inevitable language barrier.

Challenges in ensuring safety of employees
Increasingly, these incidents have placed the onus on organisations to recognise their Duty of Care responsibility to ensure their employees are well prepared and protected in case of a natural disaster.

Even as organisations introduce individual practices, such as the diligent use of tracking and communications platforms or training workforces to prepare for emergencies abroad, a more effective approach would require a holistic end-to-end programme that effectively mitigates travel risks.

Implementing a robust risk mitigation strategy is one of the biggest challenges that organisations face, as educating employees on these risks is often hindered by a tendency for staff to underestimate them.

About 53% of organisations have stated that educating employees about travel risks was their primary challenge. This is exacerbated by the misconception that a traveller’s familiarity with a location equates to a sufficient knowledge on all the potential risks.

Precautionary steps to protecting employees
It is therefore pertinent to remember that due to the unpredictable character of natural disasters, organisations cannot pre-empt them, but can do their utmost to mitigate the resultant risks.

Pre-trip risk assessment
The first step that organisations must take is to understand the natural disaster risk environment and their employees’ vulnerability to identified risks. The likelihood of a disaster is ascertained during a pre-trip risk assessment.

Several factors are researched and considered – apart from an organisation’s current presence or nature of operations in the country, disaster exposure is also dependent on the proximity to natural disaster-prone areas, the timing of the year, and the frequency of natural disasters in that location over an extended period of time.

Past recovery efforts
The second step involves assessing the resources or capabilities of local actors to assist in the event of a disaster, by researching, for instance, the institutional framework for past recovery efforts.

During a disaster, there will be many moving parts, but the host government remains the main stakeholder for the first response. During the acute phase of the disaster, the host government will establish a Crisis Management Operation Centre to coordinate relief efforts, manage information, disseminate damages and casualties’ information, and report on immediate amenities requirements.

After conducting the first two steps, the organisation is then better equipped to enhance its own capacity for response and recovery. Also known as a Medical Evacuation Response Plan, this plan provides a clear evacuation protocol with detailed steps of communication and action.

Emergency grab-bag
While it may seem an obvious precautionary measure to some, it may be surprising to note that many business travellers often overlook carrying an emergency grab-bag containing essential items. A simple measure such as this would go a long way in improving a traveller’s preparedness for critical emergencies.

This bag should contain:

  • Cash in local currency
  • Travel documents
  • Passport
  • Torchlight
  • Map
  • A bottle of water
  • Travel insurance
  • A phone and charger

Other important tips to note is to seek cover to protect oneself from the impacts of a natural disaster, such as falling debris, until the imminent danger is diminished, and quickly evacuating from buildings to a pre-determined assembly area.

As highlighted earlier, communication is often a challenge during the aftermath of a disaster and the best prepared organisations will have the necessary plans to locate and communicate with employees in a timely and efficient manner.

A pre-prepared comprehensive communications plan, including a lost-communication procedure, is critical in ensuring timely communications. Critically, these organisations recognise that they have a single golden hour to identify affected employees and communicate with them using multiple modes of communication.

Impact on organisations
Ultimately, the threat of potentially risky landscapes should not stop organisations from pursuing business opportunities in a hugely globalised economy.

A successful risk mitigation framework enables organisations in facilitating their employees’ travel in a safe, healthy and secure manner. It also helps organisations to achieve their Sustainability priorities in Good Health and Well-Being, and Decent Work. Through this framework, organisations can mitigate the costs arising from an avoidable emergency, enhance business continuity and resilience during incidents, and lower the risks of reputational damage and prosecution under occupational health and safety legislations by their employees.

Therefore, while employees can take action to help with their own safety and security while on business travel, organisations play a vital role in equipping their employees with the necessary training, protocols and support.

Dr David Teo is regional medical director – Asia at International SOS and Yoshiro Fukuma is regional security director – APAC at International SOS and Control Risks.

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