We have an employee who travels abroad (including to remote regions) regularly as part of their work. What is our responsibility to the employee while they are working abroad and in the event of an incident?”

There is no specific legislation to which an employer can turn to understand its precise obligations and duties to employees while working and travelling abroad. Employers are guided by the common law duty of care of employees, together with the general principles under the Health, Safety and Welfare at Work Act.

Duty of care

Employers have a responsibility pursuant to common law to protect their employees. This is the broad principle of “duty of care”. In the event that an employee is required to travel abroad, there is an onus on an employer to ensure that its employees hold appropriate medical and other relevant insurance. Furthermore, an employer should ensure that information and access to vaccinations (if required) is provided and supplied to its employees.

Arguably there is a higher onus on employers where employees are travelling to high risk countries. This should always be investigated. By way of example, since the terror attacks in Paris in 2015, France has remained in a state of emergency. It is due to expire now that the Presidential election has concluded, but it was extended on four occasions in the meantime.

Ideally, the employer should have a Travel Policy in place so that the employee is fully aware of the protocol required of them while working abroad including:

  1. Planning the trip – when and how to book flights, any inoculation required, and any medical or other information required.
  2. Arriving on site – should employees make contact by phone or email to confirm that they are safe. To whom should such contact be made? Are employees required to notify you of the hotel in which they are staying?
  3. Emergencies – What is the protocol in the event of natural disaster and/or terror attack for example? Is there an agreed safe place for the employees to base themselves? To whom (and how) should contact be made in the event of an emergency? Does the employer hold contact details for the employee and their next of kin? Is this information up to date?

Health and safety legislation

While there is no specific legislation in place specifically outlining an employer’s responsibilities to employees working abroad, the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 1989 – 2005 defines an employer’s obligations to employees, irrespective of where they are in the world the employees are based, as:

“Every employer shall ensure, in so far as is reasonably practicable, the safety, health and welfare at work of [its] employees”.

The above duty includes “managing and conducting work activities” in such a way as to ensure every employee’s health and safety. “Work activities” extends beyond the office in those circumstances. It includes away days, Christmas parties and travelling abroad on behalf of the employer.

Risk assessments should be carried out on the potential exposure of an employee while working abroad.

Case Law

In the UK, the High Court case of Dusek –v- Stormharbour Securities LLP, made a finding of negligence against an employer following the death of an employee. The employee in this case took a helicopter trip with “obvious potential dangers” including passing over a remote, inhospitable and inaccessible mountainous area in the Peruvian Andes as part of his work. The employer took no steps to enquire into the safety of the flight or whether or not any risk assessment had been carried out by the helicopter operators. In addition, the employer did not consider any alternative options for the employee. There were readily available safer options for this employee and in the circumstances the Court held that the employee was exposed to unnecessary risk, holding the employer negligent.

Takeaway tips

  • Introduce a Travel Policy outlining acceptable standards required of an employee.
  • Consider Risk Assessments in hot desk or serviced offices abroad and whether or not personal security is required.
  • Consider medical advice around inoculations.
  • Consider the return journey and in particular any risk posed to an employee driving home after a long haul flight.
  • Consider whether or not insurance is required to travel abroad.
  • An employee should be reminded of their obligation to act prudently.

All of the above should be balanced with the employee’s constitutional right to privacy when the employee is “off duty” while working abroad.