International development worker: Protecting employees

Before we even begin to look at the protection of those working for international development bodies/agencies we need to get one thing clear. In relation to the health and safety of international development workers there is no legal difference between volunteers and those who are salaried. So, the general misconception that volunteers have less health and safety protection than salaried workers is simply wrong. We can now take a look at the ways that international development bodies protect their employees.

Internal health and safety standards

The health and safety of international development workers/aid workers is an issue which should be addressed internally so that everybody knows where they stand. We are talking about back-office staff, marketing staff, management as well as those who venture overseas to assist with short, medium and long-term international development projects. Internal health and safety standards can in theory be based upon two different principles:-

  • The health and safety standards associated with the organisation’s “home country” together with additions and more stringent standards where applicable.
  • The most robust health and safety standards from any of the countries in which the international development organisation operates.

The idea behind the two different principles are simple, adopt the most stringent health and safety standards so that staff are as secure and safe as they can be. In simple terms, the duty of care that the international development organisation has towards all personnel in their “home country” will be extended to those working overseas, whatever area of the world.

Risk assessments

If you are travelling overseas then there are obvious additional challenges and maybe a high degree of risk depending upon the environment. This is where risk assessments are vital as they not only ensure the safe well-being, as much as can be expected, of personnel but they also fulfil a legal obligation for the international development bodies. Even for those participating in the most dangerous and challenging of projects there is still a legal obligation to ensure that the health and safety of personnel – as much as could be reasonably expected.

In many ways the risk assessment associated with an overseas International aid project is in theory exactly the same as that for activities in the traditional business arena. The principles will be the same, the assessment will be carried out in the same manner and a report produced outlining what risks there may be and individual challenges. This then moves us on to the legal requirement to match those with specific experience/skills with appropriate projects.

Matching personnel skills/experience with specific projects

It goes without saying that sending an inexperienced aid worker into a very dangerous environment is negligent. Even if there were no injuries to the personnel, the fact they have been assigned to such an environment may impact them mentally. The protection of personnel is not just associated with physical injuries but also mental trauma and any long-term impact on their lives. Those who accept a role in what could be deemed a dangerous project obviously go in with their eyes open and realistic outlook. That said; there is still a legal obligation on the international development body to do as much as reasonably possible to protect employees.

Assessing the working environment

International development workers are involved in an array of different tasks with varying degrees of danger and risk. These tasks could involve anything from:-

  • Rescuing those trapped by a natural disaster
  • Instigating long-term education programs in Third World countries
  • Building a transport network to join up settlements, villages, towns and cities
  • Distributing food where crops have failed and the local community is suffering

It is also worth noting that overseas personnel will not only include “boots on the ground” but also backup teams such as doctors, IT specialist and communication specialists. So, whatever the role of each individual they will need a place to stay and a place to work. Therefore, as well as a general risk assessment of the project the international development agencies will need to:-

  • Assess the suitability of overseas workplaces
  • Assess the buildings in which aid workers will be located
  • Ensure that the area is as safe as possible – initiate additional security where applicable
  • Communicate with local officials on the ground to avoid miscommunications

One other challenge which often occurs when international development workers/aid workers are posted overseas revolves around culture. It is essential personnel are briefed on the local culture which could include:-

  • Local religious practices
  • Local customs and laws
  • How to avoid causing offence
  • Information on religious ceremonies/festivals

In reality much of this is common sense as is the fact that international development agencies should learn from past experiences. Whatever the type of project, short, medium or long-term, there should be regular debriefs and any relevant changes made to processes going forward. There is no point experiencing difficult situations in overseas projects only to keep doing the same thing over and over again. Live, learn and adapt.

Justifying actions

Any work carried out under the guise of international development/aid work will have very different challenges to traditional employment roles in the UK. Whether you are based in the UK, another branch office in a foreign country or you are “boots on the ground” and tackling the issues head-on, the role of an international development worker is like no other. The Health and Safety at Work Act is still applicable no matter what type of employment role you take on (whether paid or voluntary).

When looking at international development workers they are still afforded the same level of legal protection as those in traditional employment roles. The environment may be different, the challenges may involve significant danger but there needs to be a clear and defined project, targets and relevant risk assessments. These risk assessments must be able to support the actions and the decisions of international development bodies as they may be required in a court of law.

To Conclude –

In years gone by health and safety standards were not necessarily adhered to by all international development agencies, NGOs, etc. However, when you bear in mind that the UK government alone will be spending £14 billion on international development aid in the next 12 months, this is now an enormous business sector. All of these bodies, as well as workers, need to have specific guidelines and procedures in place. They also need to carry out the necessary risk assessments and match staff skills/experience with particular projects/roles.

Instances of negligence will open the door for personal injury claims in the event of accidents/injury whether of a physical or mental nature. In a sector where time can literally be a matter of life and death, it is imperative that as much focus as possible is on the projects at hand. Any divergence or focus towards defending instances of negligence, leading to potential personal injury claims, is non-productive and can cause untold reputational damage.