Australia: Playing it Safe: Occupational Health, Safety and Security and the Commonwealth Games

The opening ceremony of the XIX Commonwealth Games lies around the corner on October 3 2010. However, the usual excitement of the build up to an international sporting event has been marred by doubts over the safety and security of competitors and their supporters. In the face of such concerns, it must be asked whether it is prudent for the governments to place its games delegation, and for business to place their employees, at risk. The games raise wider questions as to how business should manage risks to their employees on trips overseas.

Security concerns

The spectre of a terror attack in India is not new. Since 2000 there have been at least 14 major terror attacks in New Delhi targeted towards busy markets, train stations and other public areas. On 19 September 2010, two foreign nationals were shot at the Jama Masjid Mosque in New Delhi. Since 1997 there have been 120 reported fatalities from terror attacks.

An event which the world is watching only serves to heighten the terror threat in New Delhi. A report prepared by the private security consultants, Homeland Security Asia-Pacific, estimates the probability of a terror attack on Delhi at 80 per cent.

The Commonwealth Games travel bulletin issued by the Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advises that:

"Australians should be aware that the Commonwealth Games will be held in a security environment where there is a high risk of terrorism".

The British Government, Foreign and Commonwealth Office note that:

"There is a high threat from terrorism throughout India, including a particular risk that terrorists will attempt attacks in the run up to and during the Delhi Commonwealth Games".

Safety concerns

In recent days the fears over the quality of the construction of the Commonwealth Games venues has been widely reported. On Tuesday, 21 September 2010 a pedestrian bridge near the main Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium collapsed, injuring at least 27 workers. On Wednesday 22 September 2010, part of the false ceiling inside the weightlifting stadium collapsed, prompting fresh concerns over the standard of construction of the venues.

The Australian Government has noted in its advice for travellers that:

"Australians should be aware that building standards in India may not be comparable to those in Australia."

Health concerns

In addition to the widely reported security and safety concerns there is also the often overlooked issue of the health of those attending the games. New Delhi is currently experiencing a seasonal outbreak of dengue fever.

Potential consequences

Commonwealth employees

The Occupational Health and Safety Act 1991 (Cth) which covers Australian Commonwealth government employees has extra-territorial scope. The obligation of the Government to ensure the health and safety of their employees therefore extends to events that occur in India. The usual principles of risk assessment demand that if a risk can be eliminated, this course of action should be followed. If it is not possible to eliminate a risk, the risk should be controlled so far as is reasonably practicable.

The decision is not simply up to individuals. Sending a large government employed delegation in the face of adverse security, safety and heath risk assessments from credible sources is potentially a breach of the duty of care.

Other employees

To make matters worse, media organisations may well be in a similar position. Journalists and commentators are covered by the State based OHS regimes. The acts of the Australian States do not have extra-territorial scope. However, if a decision is taken within a State by a manger to send one of their employees to Delhi in the face of adverse risk assessments without additional precautions to mitigate that risk, the decision may well be in breach of the duty of care of the company to ensure the employees health and safety. In the event of serious injury or fatality the prudence of the decision to send an employee overseas is likely to be closely scrutinised.

Play it safe?

The Commonwealth Games raise an interesting wider question about the actions of global business to send their employees around the world and the plans they have in place should something go wrong.

An occupational health and safety policy should have triggers inbuilt at which point a decision is taken that no travel to a high risk country is permitted. Such a decision may be linked to the travel advice of the home jurisdiction government. For areas which are less frequently travelled to (or where travel is deemed essential), the advice of security consultants may need to be relied upon.

Insurances should be checked to ensure they are adequate (many policies will not cover terror attacks or kidnap and ransom payments) and evacuation plans need to be in place and communicated to staff. Should the worst occur, employees should know who to report to so that employees can be quickly located and their security assured. In addition, consideration should be given as to whether any additional training of staff is required so that they are aware of risks and are able to respond to threats.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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