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Attentive to the health and safety of its employees, as well as the liabilities that its vast travel program creates, BP plc is changing policies and ensuring suppliers maintain accountability. Speaking during a webinar last week that centered on South Africa but conveyed duty-of-care information useful for any global organization, BP Southern Africa commodity manager for services Alan Reid said the company is addressing hazards related to car travel and taking to task hotels that attempt to free themselves from any responsibility.
Other participants on the webinar, sponsored by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives and Business Travel Now, discussed the complexity and uncertainty of duty-of-care requirements, and new legislation in South Africa that will impact travel suppliers, including meeting venues.
"Our policy is really simple: no accidents, no harm to people, no harm to the environment," Reid said. "If you put that into the travel policy, it's: Everybody goes home safe."
"Everybody" at the global energy company includes "about 180 travelers" each week from South Africa and as many as 8,000 a week worldwide. Some "get lost at the airport and get on the wrong plane," Reid explained, while others have found themselves in Mumbai--where one BP division has an office--during last year's terror attacks, or in Phuket at a conference in December 2004 when a tsunami struck Thailand.
A new modification in the works is a revision "to our entire travel policy around road safety," Reid said. For example, "not allowing our managers to be out after dark, [and], if you are not going to be home by sunset, you have to stop somewhere, which now means I have to talk to hotels in places that I never knew existed."
Reid said he recently has seen "a lot of hotels putting indemnity clauses into contracts, saying, 'We are not responsible for anything, no matter who caused it or who was negligent, etc.,' and I am putting lines through it because I just won't accept that someone can indemnify themselves from everything. You can't indemnify yourself from your own negligent actions."
As part of BP's duty-of-care efforts, the company uses "a laborious process where we check every single hotel that we use" against various criteria, Reid said. "The bigger hotels we do more often; some we only do every two or three years."
The assessment includes what BP calls the "one block rule," Reid explained, "which is: how safe is it if you walk out of the property and go one block in any direction? They may be great properties, but if you go one block, it may not be a great place to be."
All Puzzle Pieces
BP also tracks the safety records of airlines and requires employees to use only approved suppliers, including charter operators, "the taxi operator, the tour operator, you name it," Reid said. "Every piece of the puzzle is assessed to make sure it meets our own standards. All of those pieces are technically part of the workplace. All of your obligations for health and safety in the workplace can be inserted into those scenarios." For that reason, to ensure it can find its travelers when necessary, BP prohibits employees from making travel arrangements on third-party Web sites.
The company also "piggybacks" on the system provided by its travel agency, Carlson Wagonlit Travel, to provide briefs to travelers when they travel to higher-risk destinations. "The health and safety manager from that country also gets advised" that a traveler will be heading to that location," Reid said.
"The United Kingdom is a 1, South Africa is a 3 and Afghanistan is a 4. Don't go there. It is non-negotiable," he explained. "Depending on the level of country you go to, there will be restrictions on what you can and can't do." BP also will equip travelers to higher-risk countries with first aid packages and, if necessary, satellite phones instead of cellular phones. "There's a lot to learn," Reid said. "Forget the law, you have a moral obligation to your people."
More Attention Needed
While companies like BP aggressively manage their duty-of-care requirements, many do not, according to webinar panelists. ACTE regional director for the Middle East and Africa Monique Swart said many travelers don't think their companies can help them "in the various kinds of situations they can get into. And when companies do get things in place to help travelers, travelers are not necessarily educated enough on what they should be doing and what is in place to help them.
"We have seen, internationally, that a lot of companies just are not taking this as seriously as they need to," Swart continued. "The sad thing is, when do they start to take it seriously? When it's too late; when something has already happened."
Carlson Wagonlit Travel national sales and marketing manager in South Africa Ingrid von Moltke also suggested that many organizations should do more to protect their employees' welfare. "When you ask corporations, 'Are you concerned with the safety and security of your travelers?' everybody answers with a 'yes,' " she said. "But if you then go to the nitty gritty and ask specifically, 'What are you doing? Have you thought about how you are going to assist the traveler? Are your travelers very aware and well-informed?' I have seen in RFPs that not a lot of attention is paid to this area.
"It is quite frightening to find how often travelers are not aware [of travel policies], and that there aren't even induction programs in place" for when a new traveler joins the company, von Moltke added. "Travelers who travel frequently will become more versed in safety and security issues, but for the traveler who only travels once, it is just as critically important that that person knows exactly what to do in the event of an emergency."
Meanwhile, von Moltke acknowledged that the issue of liability "has been a bit of a grey area" for CWT. "We are not entirely clear as to where our liabilities begin and end."
New Legislation In South Africa
At least in South Africa, two new pieces of legislation clarify some of the responsibilities for involved parties. Finalized this year, the Consumer Protection Act will shield consumers from "the unscrupulous businesses that tend to induce them to waive the obligations and liability of the supplier in terms of agreement," according to a South Africa government statement.
"It is especially important that not only the clients themselves, like BP, but also the destination managers and tour operators actually check and vet the third-party suppliers that are to be used," said Louis Nel, founder of legal consultancy Benchmark. "That will be a statutory duty by the Consumer Protection Act, but it's a good business practice in any event."
Nel also discussed liabilities for meetings and events. "It starts with the venue," he said, "an area where the Consumer Protection Act specifically focuses on." The responsibilities of the venue and the event organizer, he explained, include "access to the venue, security precautions, slippery floors, food provisions and allergies of delegates ... the list is endless."
Along those lines, webinar panelists noted South Africa's new laws related to public events (those with at least 25 people in attendance), which, according to the government, require event organizers to "take all necessary and reasonable steps to ensure the safety and security of ... all persons present at an event at a stadium or a venue."
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