At any given time, there are approximately 800,500 passengers in the air, according to Boeing Magazine. Think about that for a second – Over three-quarters of a million people flying at the same time, every single day. That’s comparable to the entire population of San Francisco!

With approximately 40 percent of air travel being for business purposes, companies have hundreds of thousands of employees travelling to thousands of cities around the world on a daily basis. Keeping them safe is of utmost importance, and having a reliable travel risk management program and duty of care policy in place is essential for any business.

The problem is, an alarming number of companies are still using the terms duty of care and travel risk management interchangeably, as if they are one and the same thing. The definition of “duty of care” is “a moral and/or legal obligation to ensure the safety or well-being of others.” Traveller Assist Head of Security Jonathan Bancroft explains: “Ideally, a travel risk management program is a well-rehearsed plan that provides duty of care to your people.”

The best way to describe it is by using an analogy. Think of a hotel building, and the fire alarm starts ringing. The alarm and fire exit represents the duty of care, and the plan of how to get to the fire exit when the alarm sounds represents the travel risk management plan. One is useless without the other. The proverbial “what” should be answered with “how” said Bancroft. “What do we need to do [keep people safe] and how do we do that? [with a travel risk management plan].”

As an assistance company, from time to time, we see travel insurance claims denied for myriad reasons. However, if the traveler is traveling on business, the company they work for still has a duty to care to the employee, but to what extent the employer is liable is not always cut and dried. Stephen Barth, Founder of Hospitality Lawyer says: “At what point the legal obligations start and end is not clear, even to legal experts.”

This issue of when liability begins and ends really goes back to the very definition of duty of care. Is it a moral obligation? Always. Is it a legal obligation? This is where it gets tricky! It all depends on two key points. The law of the land in which the company is based, and the duty of care policy itself. Even this is vague. There is no law, in any country, that guides an employer on what specific steps and precautions a company must take when sending an employee overseas. Instead, it’s case law and individual discretion that seems to be guiding the decisions of judges and juries.

After two employees of an oil and gas company were shot and killed in Venezuela, a lawsuit was brought against the company, which a judge dismissed due to the company fulfilling its moral and legal obligations. This included hiring a travel assistance company to provide pre-travel safety training, and provide around-the-clock medical and security assistance. In a separate case, a jury found that an NGO was at fault after a volunteer contracted cerebral malaria in Papua New Guinea and died. The decision was based on four key points. The NGO did not advise the volunteers of the risk of Malaria, they did not provide anti-malarial drugs, they did not provide training to recognise symptoms of prevalent diseases, and they did not provide a 24/7 phone number where volunteers could request assistance when sick or injured.

Companies without a realistic duty of care policy, and effective travel risk management program are sitting on a ticking time-bomb. It’s not a matter of if they will need it, but when. Head of Assistance for World Nomads Group Lisa Fryar explains: “We send employees overseas on a regular basis, be it an executive to Europe, a journalist to Thailand or a nurse to China. We understand that each foreign business trip is unique and presents its own travel risks.” There is no one-size-fits-all solution. “We stand by our moral obligation and we are constantly updating our policies and procedures to reduce the risks to our people,” Fryar adds.

Companies are being defined by those excelling at duty of care, and those that are failing. How companies plan for, and react to an incident can literally mean the difference between life and death. The latter of course potentially leading to years of litigation and great financial loss, not to mention the guilt of living with the notion that lives could have been saved.

“Travel risk management” defines just that: the “management” of “travel risk.” It does not eliminate risks. It just mitigates them to some extent. As with any risk management plan, you evaluate the risks, mitigate the risks where possible, and for risks that are not manageable, you assess whether to insure against and “go ahead,” or re-assess and choose another plan. When companies create a travel risk management program, they need to assess the risk employees face, and remember to assess the risks both at home and abroad.

There is the misconception by human resources and legal departments of corporations that travel risk management only includes kidnapping, acts of terrorism and natural disasters. They become very defensive and increasingly, employers are wary that they may “scare” their employees by using certain terminologies and providing safety training. In reality, the risks employees face are of the everyday variety: Being a passenger in a taxi without wearing a seatbelt, crossing the street while wearing headphones, or walking home alone from the office after working late. Business travel can be as simple as crossing the road to meet a client, or flying half way around the world to attend a conference. An effective travel safety course will teach all aspects of travel risks, how to mitigate them, and how to react if they do happen.

Editor at Safe Travels Magazine, Bethany Torvell comments, “What is equally interesting as it is concerning is the ‘box-ticking’ approach that some companies take to duty of care. Someone is aware that they need to do something, but there doesn’t seem to be a comprehensive understanding of what that something is. These plans are written up and shoved in a drawer, and presumably, occasionally dusted off in a panic in a moment of crisis.” A duty of care policy must be backed-up by a well-rehearsed travel risk management program, otherwise it’s useless.

Torvell adds: “What’s encouraging is that there has been an increased number of visits to related articles on our website from people searching to find out more about duty of care.”

Chris Hurst, Chief Operating Officer at Stabilitas, says: “A positive sign that we are seeing in the duty of care space is an increase in companies who are implementing employee tracking and mass notifications for their mobile workforce. When an incident happens, companies are looking to answer, "who's at risk" and "are they ok.” Employers need to provide realistic, travel safety training, pre-travel briefings, mobile alerts and 24/7 access to a phone number for medical and security advice and assistance. Employees should have peace of mind that should there be an incident, everyone knows what to do, when to do it, and most importantly, how.