What obligations does an employer have to employees who travel for work?
Every day millions of Australians travel to and from work. The law has accepted that this is generally the employee’s responsibility, mainly because the employer does not have control of that environment.
However, when an employee is required to travel for work, that is a different matter.
A typical example of an employee who travels for work is a salesperson who is required to get out of the office to market and sell the goods or services of their employer.
Ensuring that the workplace is safe
It is important for all employers to know that they have obligations under occupational health and safety laws, which require an employer to provide a safe workplace to employees. Failure to provide a safe workplace can result in hefty fines and even criminal prosecution of an employer.
When you send an employee out of the office to do work, the workplace becomes wherever they travel for that work. You have an obligation to take all reasonable steps to ensure that that workplace is safe.
Accommodation and modes of transport must both be safe for employees
One such step might be to ensure that the mode of transport itself is safe, that for example travel by road includes regular breaks and that the transportation is suitable.
Obviously if a salesperson is travelling hundreds of kilometres, the employer needs to ensure that the vehicle provided is modern, safe and roadworthy.
The employer’s obligations might also extend to ensuring that accommodation is adequate and not in a dangerous part of town, particularly for an employee who is travelling alone.
Importance of adequate communications and keeping track of employees
Adequate communications are another important safety factor. For example, a reasonable step for an employer today might be to ensure that a travelling staff member has a hands-free phone system in any vehicle they are using.
Similarly, staff travelling in remote regional locations where mobile coverage is inadequate may require a satellite phone or long-range UHF radio.
An employer has an obligation to keep track of their staff member, even if that person is a senior member of staff and has a high level of autonomy. To ensure that staff member’s safety, the employer should have a well-documented system to ensure that contact is maintained with that employee and their safety ensured.
Remote work increases importance of robust work systems and comprehensive training
An employee out of the office travelling cannot be directly supervised. But this simply emphasises the importance of a well-documented system of work and appropriate training.
For example, that system of work might include directions to workers on what to do if they are faced with bullying or harassment by third parties. A worker should know that they do not have to subject themselves to highly stressful work situations or abuse on behalf of an employer to the detriment of their own health.
Management of risks even more vital when staff members travel overseas
All of these factors become even more important when an employer has an employee travelling overseas. It is the responsibility of the employer to understand and then train their staff member on all of the additional risk factors that exist in the other country.
Local customs and laws, dress codes, different law enforcement, extreme climate, potential exposure to toxins and disease are all part of the increased risks which an employer needs to ensure are taken into account to protect their staff.
Even something as simple as road travel can have deadly consequences when combined with poor medical facilities. Being prepared to incur the additional expense of hiring local drivers in good vehicles, combined with establishing a medical evacuation plan, would be reasonable steps for an employer to take for staff undertaking international travel.