Overseas postings: how do you manage WHS risks?

Overseas postings: how do you manage WHS risks?
By Gaby Grammeno on 5 December 2017 What are some of the risks workers posted overseas may encounter and how can we manage them?

This question was recently sent to our Ask an Expert service.

Q We are considering sending a local manager overseas to set up and run a branch for a period of time before bringing her home. We also intend to run a series of secondments from the Australian office to the overseas branch. What are our WHS legal duties to Australians that we send overseas, especially when overseas safety standards may be markedly different to here?

A Setting up and running a branch overseas can be a rewarding experience for a local staff member as well as the organisation, but such a venture adds a challenging new dimension to an employer’s duty of care for the staff member’s health, safety and wellbeing.

In addition to the manager establishing the branch, there may be others whose safety and health need to be considered. For example, if the secondment is intended to be medium- or long-term, the manager’s husband and children may also be relocating for the duration. Under work health and safety laws, an employer’s duties extend to other people whose health or safety may be at risk due the conduct of the enterprise. Then there are local workers employed by the overseas branch, and the other Australians who are subsequently sent there.

It’s true that in many countries safety standards are markedly lower than in Australia, and local employers may get away with workplaces in which working conditions are dangerous and employees are unprotected. But it’s a mistake to imagine that the obligations of Australian employers cease as soon as their employees (or contractors they have engaged) leave the country.

Australian employers still have a duty to identify risks to which their staff may be exposed and do what is reasonably practicable to manage those risks.

Risks of working overseas

Health and safety risks for overseas workers are many and varied, and difficult for an employer to control or address. Clearly, the risks are greater in countries with less-developed infrastructure, regulation and enforcement of safety standards.

For example, in some countries drinking water may be unsafe, exposing staff to the risk of illness and infections, even including ruptured eardrums due to ear infections from getting water in their ears while washing. 

Traffic laws may be largely unenforced and roads unsafe, with a high risk of accidents and even the possibility of local staff being blamed for accidents they did not cause. 

In certain seasons, staff may be at risk of bites from mosquitoes carrying diseases such as dengue, malaria, yellow fever, chikungunya, or the Zika virus.

In some overseas destinations, there will be security issues such a high local levels of violence, including gang warfare. Hostility to foreigners may also be an issue.

In terms of management, the manager responsible for establishing the branch is likely to be confronted with a host of novel problems. These can include pressure to employ certain unsuitable or unqualified individuals, indifference to Australian notions of punctuality, or coercion to bribe local officials. 

Difficulties can also be encountered due to the resentment or even traumatisation of local staff (if the location is in a post-conflict zone), or their resistance to direction from a female manager. Local cultures may be impervious to western ideas of nepotism or selection according to merit, and there may be a marked lack of transparency and accountability in the host society. Moreover, the cultural, linguistic and social isolation that may be experienced by the employee can be extremely stressful.

Risks may also arise from the staff member’s occupation or as a result of certain personal characteristics of the person. Journalists, medical personnel and human rights or aid workers are particularly vulnerable, as are members of any group subject to particular restrictions or dangers in the host country. 

For example, regrettably, in some places a woman’s mobility and access may be very restricted if she is not accompanied by a male escort. People of a particular religion or ethnicity or LGBTI employees may be at risk of hostility, stigmatisation and discrimination or, even worse, hate crimes.

Managing the risks

Health and safety laws require employers to:
  • make every effort to think through the types of risks to which their overseas staff members (and possibly their family and employees) may be exposed
  • weigh up the likelihood and the possible severity of the consequences, and
  • consider whether the foreseeable risks are within acceptable limits or not.
If there are risks, but you believe they can be managed, as an employer your legal duties are to take suitable precautions and exercise due diligence in establishing safe systems and safe working procedures for overseas staff. Measures to eliminate or minimise the risks are just as varied as the types of risks your employees might face, but by law, they must include effective communication systems with appropriate back-ups in case of emergencies or system failures.

There is also a legal obligation to have a contingency plan in place, in the event your employee needs to leave the host country at very short notice and without delay, whether for medical or other reasons. The availability of local support and assistance is another essential element of the emergency plan.

If staff are to be working overseas, especially where the location is not in a western, industrialised country, there is no substitute for careful prior research, thorough consideration of the risks, and every reasonable effort to protect the wellbeing of your staff.
Need more help with WHS/OHS management?

Australian Business Consulting and Solutions has a dedicated team of WHS/OHS experts who can assist you with your specific WHS/OHS issues and problems. If you would like a free and obligation-free initial assessment of what you require in terms of professional assistance, you can obtain more information from our website.


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