Occupational Health & Safety for Travellers

Written by: Marianne Levitsky, MES, CIH, ROH, FAIHA
Edited by: Naomi Lai

One of the things that can keep an employer up at night is worrying about the safety of employees who are overseas, especially when travelling in unfamiliar destinations. After all, an employers’ responsibility to protect the health and safety of their workers doesn’t stop when they leave the office!

Managing travel risk is the responsibility of both the worker and their employer. A new code of practice from the British Standards Institution outlines the measures employers should take to protect their staff when abroad. The code incorporates some of the measures from a Duty of Care document produced by International SOS. Managing health and safety protection for travellers involves familiar processes of risk assessment, planning, preparation, implementation, and reporting.
Here, we will outline some important steps to ensuring safe overseas travel for employees.

Risk Assessment
This starts with researching the destination and specific locations the employee will visit, the nature of the work, and considering the safest transportation/accommodation options.
A good place to start destination research is the traveller’s own government.  The Government of Canada classifies destinations into the following 4 risk levels, based on both medical and security risks:
1.     Exercise normal security precautions
2.    Exercise a high degree of caution
3.    Avoid non-essential travel
4.    Avoid all travel

Some standard insurance policies don’t cover risks in countries designated as levels 3 and 4, and employers should avoid sending employees to such destinations unless it is necessary.
The travel advisories issued by the Canadian government, as well as private travel assistance organizations like International SOS and On Call International, provide detailed information on the types of risks faced in each country, such as security, political unrest, road safety, weather disruptions, and medical threats.

The traveller and employer should then develop a risk mitigation plan. A good model to follow is the process used by universities to protect students who are studying or conducting research overseas. For example, the University of Toronto has a “Safety Planning Record” on which the student and advisor must document the risks and protective measures for each category of hazard. Checklists are also available in the Safety Without Borders handbook, and from On Call International.

Safe travelling starts well before departure! Following these measures before the trip   will help ensure a safe, productive, and enjoyable experience:
1.      Be up to date on visa and passport requirements.  Ensure that your passport will not         expire within six months of your return.
2.     Get the right insurance for the destination.  You may need an add-on to your regular         insurance to ensure it covers medical or emergency evacuation.  You                                  comparison shop for insurance and get more information at                                                  https://www.squaremouth.com/
3.     Register the trip with your own government, like Canada’s travel registration                       program or the US State Department’s STEP program. 
4.     Get the right vaccinations and medication to take with you. See a travel medicine             specialist at least two months before your trip.
5.     Get security gear to protect valuables, e.g. passport/money belts, luggage locks,               tracking devices, portable door stops and alarms.
6.     Book accommodation that has verified security provisions.
7.      Arrange for a safe driver/car to take you to your accommodation.
8.     Make provisions to ensure cell phone coverage.
9.     Consider risks related to specific traveller/destination combinations, e.g. risks to               LGBTQ or religious travellers.
10.   Travellers should complete training on risk prevention. Some online courses are               available on www.disasterready.org
11.    Bring essential information such as:

  •      Passport copies (carried separately from passport)
  •      Emergency contact
  •      Itinerary
  •      Prescriptions
  •      Government embassy or destination contact

12.    Designate contact(s) within the organization who will not be travelling and will be              available in an emergency. They should be given critical information related to the            traveller and the trip, i.e.

  •       Passport number
  •       Emergency contact
  •       Itinerary
  •       Medical conditions
  •       Contact information while travelling

While Travelling/Implementation
1.      Stay in touch with the designated contact in your employer organization. Advise               him/her of any changes in travel plans, itinerary or contact information.
2.     Stay alert in unfamiliar locations and don’t broadcast the fact that you are a traveller,         e.g. don’t walk around with your attention on a map or display expensive                             belongings.
3.     Carry packs and purses in a manner that protects them from theft.
4.     Depending on how secure your accommodations are, use a portable                                   doorstop/alarm.
5.     If you have an emergency or health problem, call your insurer immediately – if                   possible, even before you arrange any health care.

If an accident occurs, it is important to report and document the details so that the incident can be investigated, and measures can be taken to avoid repetition. There may be minimum legal requirements for the investigation, and some organizations may choose to investigate "near misses" as well. Travellers should familiarize themselves with their organization’s health and safety program reporting process, which will specify:

  •       To whom it will be reported
  •       What to report
  •       Which forms to use
  •       How it is reported
  •       Which incidents are investigated
  •       Who will investigate them
  •       Which records to keep

You can find more information on your region’s specific requirements by visiting your government website. For example, the Canadian Centre of Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) page outlines basic Occupational Health and Safety program elements, and covers many other related topics.

Following these procedures and being prepared for travel risks can help to make sure travellers have an enjoyable and productive trip, but most importantly, that they come home safely.

To read Marianne's full article, check out ECOH's News and Publications page: http://www.ecoh.ca/news-and-publications/