Business travel: what are the OHS risks?


Business travel: what are the OHS risks?

On the road, up in the air, or just far away... Gaby Grammeno explains the perils and pitfalls of business travel.

There are any number of reasons why employees may need to travel for business purposes. From truck drivers to telephone technicians, from  builders to bankers, from surveyors to staff on overseas assignments, workers may need to travel to a location other than where a business is based.

Whatever the circumstances, employers need to consider the risks their staff may face while on the road, in the air, or far away.

Employers’ obligations

Wherever employees are located while carrying out their duties, Australian employers still have a duty of care for their health, safety and well-being, and those duties also extend to any other people whose health or safety may be at risk due to the conduct of the work.

The core of an employer’s obligation is to identify risks to which their staff may be exposed and to do what is reasonably practicable to manage those risks.

Managing the risks of travel

The first set of risks to consider relate to the mode of travel. Road transport is by far the most dangerous, with traffic accidents dominating workers compensation statistics. Vehicle accidents are responsible for thousands of serious injuries to working people every year, and though the road transport industry employs only 2 per cent of Australian workers, it accounts for 17 per cent of work-related fatalities.

This points to a key obligation of employers of people travelling by road for work purposes – whether they are taxi drivers or technicians repairing communications towers, couriers, council workers or staff attending conferences. In such cases, employers must ensure they have in place comprehensive programs to manage driver and fleet safety, and otherwise protect employees using the roads.

Air travel tends to be less risky on average, though in recent years awareness has grown of the risks of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) for those on long haul flights, or anyone travelling for more than four hours, whether by air, car, bus or train. Employees with any of the risk factors for DVT (such as older age, overweight, recent surgery, varicose veins or previous blood clot) should be warned of the risks, alerted to the signs and symptoms of blood clots and advised to move or stretch their legs frequently when on long trips, as extended periods of immobility increase the likelihood of problems. Wearing compression stockings or taking aspirin or other blood thinners may also help prevent trouble.

Managing the risks of working elsewhere

The second set of risks to manage concerns the location of the employee and the nature of the work to be performed there. Of course, this will vary enormously, depending on the occupation of the worker and the types of tasks undertaken.

For example, a geologist taking soil and rock samples in a remote region may be at risk of sunburn, heat stress, snakebite or mosquitoes carrying diseases such as Ross River fever. For an electrician installing solar panels on buildings, the risk of falling off a roof or ladder is an everyday hazard. Social welfare workers visiting clients in their own homes may on occasion face abuse or even violent assault.

Employees travelling overseas for work purposes face a raft of additional risks, especially in developing countries, locations where foreigners may be targeted, or post-conflict zones. Risks include endemic diseases, violence, and unsafe drinking water.

Whatever an employee’s situation, an employer’s duties are to make sure they have considered the risks their staff member might face, and taken reasonable steps to mitigate the risk.

Communication arrangements

Health and safety laws require employers to ensure that, if a staff member is engaged in work that is isolated from the assistance of other persons because of location, time or the nature of the work, it is possible for them to call for assistance (eg rescue, medical assistance or the attendance of emergency service workers), if they need it. This means the person travelling for business purposes must have a reliable means of communication.

In many instances, a mobile phone that is kept charged and operable will meet this need, as long as the staff member has a list of appropriate numbers to call in an emergency. But the vagaries of mobile reception mean this is not always adequate, and GPS trackers, satellite phones or other measures may be required to ensure that a means of contact is always available to the person if needed.
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