Dirty Business: New Delhi Smog Affects Workers' Health

What is HR’s responsibility to expats in hazardous locations?

By Roy Maurer Feb 11, 2014

Beijing’s notoriously poor air quality has a grimy rival as spikes in New Delhi’s pollution levels have gotten the attention of the world press.

India’s air pollution is getting worse, according to the 2014 Yale University Environment Performance Index (EPI), which ranked the South Asian economic giant 174th out of 178 countries, ahead of only Pakistan, China, Nepal and Bangladesh.

“A bottom performer on nearly every policy issue included in the 2014 EPI, with the exception of forests, fisheries and water resources, India’s performance lags most notably in the protection of human health from environmental harm,” read a Yale statement.

In Delhi the level of particulate matter that the World Health Organization classifies as carcinogenic has risen from 168 micrograms per cubic meter in January 2011 to 183 micrograms per cubic meter in January 2014, according to government data.

An acceptable level is 60 micrograms per cubic meter, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Comparisons to Beijing

Similar to India, China experienced recent rapid economic expansion that has transformed the country’s standard of living for the better—but at the expense of becoming the world’s worst polluter.

One difference has been China’s recent response. Beijing has launched aggressive control measures, from limiting the number of cars on the road to penalizing factories that fail to meet environmental standards. Chinese cities also have implemented health-alert systems that advise caution on dangerously smoggy days.

HR’s Responsibility

So what should HR do during the process of selecting employees to send to potentially hazardous locations? Does HR alert the employee to the air quality in New Delhi, for example?

“The obvious answer is that morally and ethically, regardless of management opposition, HR owes it to every expat to fully disclose factors and conditions that affect one’s health or safety—and especially in the case of an expat with a family,” said Ron Pilenzo, SPHR, president & CEO of the Global HR Consultancy, based in Hobe Sound, Fla. “To do otherwise is unethical and may even be a factor in legal actions that may subsequently arise. Although these are few and far between, more and more employees know their rights and are willing to speak out.”

Pilenzo recommends that companies develop an HR policy that requires full disclosure of working conditions and safety hazards that go along with pay, benefits and the usual perks of expat assignments. “It may also be wise to have employees sign an expat agreement that outlines each and every benefit and perk, along with a clause that states that the company has disclosed information about the assignment. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Even if a company advises an employee of smog conditions in, say, New Delhi or Beijing and he still agrees to the assignment, if his family becomes affected by the poor air quality, the worker may attempt to hold the company responsible, Pilenzo said. “A signed agreement or even a contract should be drawn for self-protection. In some cases, it may also be advisable to spell out the responsibilities—legally, medical—in the event the employee or members of his family are affected.”

Lastly, Pilenzo advises businesses to examine the laws of the host country and how cases of exposed liability may be viewed by its courts. “To only look at U.S. law and our interpretation may be limited and shortsighted,” he said. It would also be wise for the HR department to include in its budget the cost of legal and consulting fees as a part of the expat function.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him at @SHRMRoy

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