At the conference, organised by duty of care consultants McMillan Cooper, which addressed how to protect “staff and students in a high risk world”, universities were urged to put in place robust strategies to lower risk before travel, as well as have a crisis management strategy.
“Develop a good relationship with academic departments, particularly those that have high-risk travel”
During discussions throughout the day, many university staff concurred that there is often confusion within institutions about where the responsibility of risk management lies.
“Administrators often end up responding to events on an ad-hoc basis where they’re challenged to provide crisis response and emergency response, and there’s been very little forethought to prevention,” Jonathan O’Keeffe, regional medical director for medical services at travel assistance firm International SOS, told The PIE News.
Nick Williams, senior consultant at Control Risks, emphasised that there should be a crisis management team in place to deal with emergencies overseas.
There should be a clear, concise action plan in place which lays out who is responsible for contacting the student or staff member involved, insurance companies and family members, he said.
Risk mitigation should begin long before a crisis arises, he stressed. For example, there should be a centralised record of who is abroad and where.
However, attendees related past difficulties in facilitating communication between different departments that send people overseas, and ensuring that academics in particular comply with safety guidelines.
Some can be unwilling even to inform the institution about their plans to conduct research abroad, due to what Angus Clark, secretary of the Universities Safety & Health Association, called the “misplaced notion that academic freedom is anything more than the right to publish”.
Meanwhile, some institutional staff said they lacked the top-level backing for implementing safety strategies, with one being told he could only implement ‘guidelines’ rather than regulations.
However, Clark stressed that being able to keep track of researchers overseas is essential both in order to keep them safe and to protect an institution from litigation if they are perceived to have failed to do so.
“Develop a good relationship with academic departments, particularly those that have high-risk travel,” urged Melanie Boucher, head of health & safety at the London School of Economics.
Though some unexpected crises will arise, there are many incidents universities can identify and plan for, noted O’Keeffe from International SOS.
“You can’t foresee every risk – but malaria in sub-Saharan Africa is a very foreseeable risk, as are traffic accidents on busy roads”
“You can’t foresee every risk – but malaria in sub-Saharan Africa is a very foreseeable risk, as are traffic accidents on busy roads,” he said. “These are things you should have procedures in place for.”
Katie Geary, medical director – assistance at International SOS, added that pre-departure injections are also ways to minimise threat of life threatening illnesses such as rabies.
Meanwhile, being aware of pre-existing medical and mental health conditions and investing in pre-travel medical advice can help institutions ensure that students and staff will be able to access care should they need it, she said.
This applies not just to physical but also mental health – according to Geary, among some 1.54 million cases dealt with by International SOS, repatriation for mental health issues is 23 times higher than for any other issue.
“There is lots of evidence to show that every $1 you invest in prevention saves $2.58 in terms of the costs [that can arise as a result of failing to take these measures],” she said.
Mark Lowe, editor of Kidnap and Ransom Magazine, emphasised that “complacency is our worst enemy”, underlining that perceived mundane threats can develop into larger issues.
“The risks that the students and researchers expect to face in reality are the small things: it’s the dust that gets into the eye that creates an infection that’s not treated that means the eye swells up enormously, and you’re obliged to bring them back from the Philippines… the other problems are road accidents: six people sharing a rickety taxi, the suspension collapses and you’ve got someone with a broken wrist,” he said.
“Very, very, very rarely are people raped, murdered or kidnapped,” he continued. “But it is a possibility, and it is something that absolutely, categorically must be taken into consideration.”