Focus on Business-Travel Safety After Rail Threat

By Catherine Skrzypinski May 3, 2013

After the unraveling of an alleged plot to derail a passenger train traveling between New York and Toronto in April 2013, a Canadian security expert said business travelers do not face an increased threat from terrorism, but he suggested that both U.S. and Canadian companies pay more attention to their workers’ safety when employees travel throughout North America.

“Rail travel has not become unsafe, and the risks associated with traveling to Canada remain low,” said David Hyde, of David Hyde and Associates, a security and workplace violence prevention consulting firm in Toronto.

Still, “employers need to make their staff aware of how to protect themselves, even in Canada’s biggest city, Toronto,” Hyde added.

Terror Plot Disrupted

Canadian authorities reported that two men had been planning to attack a train operated by VIA Rail Canada, the government-owned rail system. Police said the men had been studying rail lines in and around Toronto and, possibly, the line from Toronto to New York’s Penn Station.

In a statement dated April 22, 2013, VIA Rail said “at no time” was there an imminent threat to the general public or to VIA Rail personnel and passengers.

Shortly after news broke about the Canadian rail incident, International SOS, an organization that manages health and security risks for international travelers and expatriates, fielded a handful of calls. Erin Giordano, International SOS’ marketing communications director, told SHRM Online that the firm automatically sent an e-mail to all of its clients traveling between the metropolitan areas of New York and Toronto and issued the following advice:

  • You may continue to travel to and in Canada.
  • Be alert to your surroundings, especially at transport hubs and in public places.
  • Report any suspicious behavior or suspect packages to authorities.

“[The Canadian train terrorism threat] is an opportunity to improve security throughout Canada, as most Canadians [up until the terrorism plot] usually do not notify law enforcement about abandoned backpacks,” Hyde noted. “The key is to be vigilant.”

Canadian media have reported that VIA Rail will now review its security procedures, but Hyde said he doubts security methods will change at Toronto’s Union Station and at other transport hubs around the country. “Travelers may notice additional security checks, though these are unlikely to be disruptive … however, if there was a shift [in security measures], it would change domestic travel [around Canada] significantly.”

HR’s Role in Business-Traveler Security

A March 2013 report issued by U.K. corporate services firm Hogg Robinson Group—a month before the terrorism threat in Canada—found that business travelers prefer train travel to flying not only because of the less invasive screening measures but because of the proximity of train stations to a city’s downtown corridor, as well as the unlimited Wi-Fi access and time to work during the journey.

Although international business travelers have fallen below the radar of human resources in the past, this is not acceptable anymore, Giordano said. HR is responsible for warning international business travelers of foreseeable risks and contacting employees in time of need or during a crisis, he said.

HR practitioners have a big role to play in ensuring the safety of employees while they travel for business, since an employer has both legal and moral obligations to its employees as part of its duty of care, observed Lisbeth Claus, Ph.D., SPHR, GPHR, professor of global human resources at Willamette University’s Atkinson graduate school of management in Portland, Ore.

“HR needs to step in and arm [employees] with trustworthy information via e-mail confirming the incident and advice that makes sense for where in the world they are in that moment so travelers can think on their feet and respond smartly,” Giordano added.

Hyde recommended that U.S. and Canadian employers address potentially dangerous incidents via a memo posted on internal websites or at a companywide briefing.

Furthermore, HR professionals should put business travelers in touch with local security and medical professionals in the case of an emergency, Giordano advised.

Electronically Locating Your Workforce

Another way organizations can safeguard their employees is by tracking them electronically when they cross borders. Savvy companies that are tracking travelers are using a technology platform that integrates travel-itinerary data from multiple sources, such as a travel management company, and maps out where their employees are at any given moment, Giordano explained.

Tracking travelers can often be seen as a hot potato being passed around in companies from the security to the travel department, with HR sometimes never feeling as if they need to take the lead,” Giordano added.

However, less than half (46 percent of respondents) of companies are keeping tabs on employees when they embark on international business travel, according to International SOS’ Duty of Care Global Benchmarking Report, conducted by Claus.

The report noted that some advanced technology systems even have two-way texting, so if an incident happens, the company can text the traveler in the affected area and simply wait for a reply.

However, a caveat to using tracking technology is that an employee’s privacy could be violated, and companies might be viewed as Big Brother, said Michael Russo, director of global security at pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly and Co. “Employers need to explain to staff this technology is there for their safety.”

Establishing an ‘I’m OK’ Policy

Some companies are taking their safety communication plans one step further, establishing an official “I’m OK” policy for business travelers to check in with their teams at their home office if an emergency arises in their vicinity.

Eli Lilly has had this policy in place since Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast, in August 2005, Russo noted. Employees can contact their line managers either by text or e-mail to let them know they are fine. But they should preplan their communication strategy in case cellphone service is not available or they can’t log on to the Internet with their smartphone, laptop or tablet.

“An ‘I’m OK’ policy makes good business sense,” concluded Teresa Willson, manager of global travel and traveler safety at PATH, a nonprofit global health organization. “This shows that an organization really cares about its employees.”

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.​


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