Everyday, millions of Australians travel to and from work. The law has accepted that this is generally the employee’s responsibility, mainly on the basis that the employer does not have control of that environment.
However, when an employee is required to travel for work, that is a different issue. Classic examples of travelling for work would include a salesperson who is required to get out of the office to market and sell the services or goods of the employer.
What obligations does an employer have to such travelling employees?
First, the employer has 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 against an employer.
When you send an employee out of the office to do work, the workplace becomes wherever they travel for that work and an employer has obligations to take all reasonable steps to ensure that workplace is safe.
It might be to ensure that the transportation itself is safe, that for example travel by road includes regular breaks and that the transportation is suitable.
Obviously, if you have a salesperson travelling hundreds of kilometres, an employer needs to ensure that the vehicle provided is modern, safe and roadworthy.
A modern consideration might be to ensure that a travelling staff member has a hands-free phone system in any vehicle they are using.
It might also extend to ensuring that accommodation is adequate and not in a dangerous part of town, particularly for the employee travelling alone.
Adequate communications are another important safety factor. Staff travelling in remote regional locations where mobile coverage is inadequate may require a satellite phone or long-range, ultra high frequency (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 contact is kept with that employee and their safety ensured.
Out of site, not out of mind
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.
That system of work, for example, 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.
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.
The additional expense of hiring local drivers in good vehicles combined with a medical evacuation plan would be a reasonable step for an employer to take for staff undertaking international travel.
Nathan Luke is a lawyer at Stacks Law Firm.