International development worker: Dangerous countries

The United Nations is one of the leading aid relief bodies in the world and has on numerous occasions negotiated ceasefires to allow the flow of food and medical assistance. Often central to aid relief activity the United Nations has highlighted a number of countries in which international development workers are expected to operate in extreme circumstances. Some of the most dangerous countries in the world at this moment in time include:-

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International development worker: Post traumatic stress disorder

It is difficult for most people to comprehend exactly how PTSD affects individuals. We hear horror stories of PTSD occurring weeks or months after traumatic events and having a potentially devastating impact on the person’s life. Unfortunately, those who fail to receive treatment for PTSD can have suicidal thoughts which may lead to fatalities.

Before we look at International development work and PTSD, what exactly is PTSD?

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International development worker: Personal injury

On the surface it might seem as though there are some challenges when making personal injury claims against international development bodies. There is confusion regarding employment status, salaried or volunteer, confusion regarding which employment laws are relevant, homeland or the country you are working on, then we have the inherent risk with many international development projects. How can you make a personal injury claim when you are fully aware of the potential dangers?

Many people are also concerned about making personal injury claims against what are perceived as charitable projects. So, where do we start with personal injury claims, negligence and legal liability for international development employers?

Volunteer or salaried

The UK government recently put in place a legally binding obligation fixing the UK international aid budget and 0.7% of UK GDP. Whether or not you agree with this fixed-rate, currently equating to around £14 billion a year, it has been well received by many UK citizens and the international community. As a consequence, we have seen a rise in the number of government organisations as well as non-government international development bodies.

This has led to a significant increase in the number of employment opportunities although with experience a central part of the application procedure, this has increased the number of volunteer workers. In what is literally a chicken and egg situation, what comes first; volunteer work and then salaried work or trying to obtain salaried work without any volunteer experience?

This in itself has led to a general misunderstanding of the legal obligations which international development bodies have towards their staff. When we talk about staff we include salaried and volunteer workers. Just because a worker is not yet receiving a salary does not mean the company utilising their services does not have a legal obligation to ensure their health and safety. First misunderstanding resolved.

Working in dangerous environments does not negate employer legal obligations

International development work can take in anything from logistics to IT work, education programs to aid relief. In many cases international development workers will be located in potentially dangerous areas of the world where there may be fighting, disease or general lawlessness. Just because you agreed to work in a potentially dangerous environment does not mean that you are accepting a lesser degree of protection or duty of care from your employer. As the environment is potentially dangerous the legal onus on an international development body to ensure the safe well-being of employees can actually be much stronger.

This is the second of the major misunderstandings; that you are somehow agreeing to put yourself at risk without basic health and safety protection. You will not be left to your own devices….

Health and Safety at Work

The Health and Safety at Work Act is relevant if you are employed by a UK-based international development body whether you are working overseas or in the UK. The general principle with regards to health and safety amongst international development bodies is that they will take the stronger protection laws of the head office or other countries in which they operate. If you think about it, without legal safeguards in relation to negligence/health and safety the number of volunteers and paid international development workers would be significantly less.

The Health and Safety at Work Act places a legal onus on employers to:-

  • Instigate initial and ongoing training (health and safety/role specific)
  • Provide protective clothing/equipment
  • Ensure the safety and well-being of all employees
  • Carry out risk assessments
  • Ensure business premises are safe
  • Match those with specific experience to appropriate roles
  • Ensure that complaints and disciplinary issues are acted upon

These are just a selection of the legal obligations which all employers take on when operating in the UK. There are others which are specific to individual industries but on the whole it is the legal obligation of all employers to ensure the safety and well-being of their employees.

Common injuries amongst international development workers

There are many different types of potential injuries which may be experienced when undertaking projects in different parts of the world. Some of the more common include:-

  • Road traffic accidents
  • Physical attacks
  • Exposure to infectious diseases
  • Kidnapping
  • Slips, trips and falls in the workplace
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Injuries caused by insecure buildings

Looking at some of these issues, there is a temptation to assume that when signing up to volunteer/salaried work in dangerous countries/environments risk is simply “part of the job”. As mentioned above, there are obvious risks unique to this type of career and this makes risk assessments even more important.

Risk assessments

As a matter of course, international development bodies will now carry out risk assessments in relation to traditional work in their offices as well as work in the field. There will be situations, which have been highlighted in the press, where it is simply too dangerous for international development workers to be deployed. We have seen a number of instances where workers have been evacuated from areas where there is extreme risk to life. These risk assessments will be documented and retained going forward. They create a paper trail which may be required in the event of personal injury claims in the future.

Claiming for personal injuries

If you receive an injury, physical or mental, as a consequence of potential negligence by your international development employer then you may have a case for compensation. In many cases the situation may be relatively simple in apportioning responsibility for your injury, thus having a good case for being compensated. Maybe you were placed in one of the following situations:-

  • You had little/irrelevant experience for your allocated role
  • Protective clothing/equipment was inadequate or not available
  • Your employer ignored warnings of increased danger
  • Your working environment was unsafe

However, whether working in the back office, general business or overseas helping with aid relief, there are still genuine accidents recognised by the legal system. It is impossible to protect against every scenario where somebody will sustain injuries and therefore not all claims for compensation will be upheld. But where a claimant can prove their injuries could and should have been prevented, they would have a strong case to be compensated, not only for their injury but for associated losses and expenses.

To Conclude –

While there are inherent risks associated with many international development projects, this does not in any way shape or form reduce the employers legal obligations or duty of care to employees to ensure the well-being of their employees. If you are injured, physically or mentally, because of negligence by your employer you should seek the advice of a lawyer as soon as possible, not only because it is easier to re-collect details but because there is also a time limit of 3 years from the date of your injury in which to claim compensation.