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duty of care at work
Communications May 28, 2021

Duty of Care: An Employer’s Guide to Legal and Moral Responsibilities

In this post, we’ll examine what duty of care is, how it can impact your business, and answer some frequently asked questions about this highly complex subject.

Duty of care—you might have heard the phrase tossed around by companies touting their dedication to employees and workplace safety. When some people hear the phrase, they associate it with law firm commercials, personal injury lawsuits, and big payouts. But what exactly is it?

In this post, we’ll examine what duty of care is, how it can impact your business, and answer some frequently asked questions about this highly complex subject.

What is Duty of Care?

If you ask 10 different experts, “what is duty of care?” chances are you’ll hear 10 different answers. That’s because the definition of duty of care varies depending on the context and topic.

This post will focus on what it means from an employee safety and organizational liability standpoint.

Layman’s terms

According to Collins Dictionary, duty of care is “the legal obligation to safeguard others from harm while they are in your care, using your services, or exposed to your activities.” The concept is related to other legal terms such as “ordinary care” or “reasonable care,” which essentially mean “what is expected of most people in most cases.”

Legalese

Because the term is often used in tort law, it’s also important to look at how the courts view legal duty of care. According to Law.com, duty of care is a requirement that a person act toward others and the public with the standard of care (watchfulness, attention, caution) that a prudent person in similar circumstances would use. The “reasonable person” standard is an objective test that jurors and judges use to determine if a defendant’s actions align with those of a hypothetical, ordinary person.

Put simply, duty of care is the standard by which someone is held liable for a plaintiff’s injury in personal injury cases like medical malpractice, car accidents, slips, and falls. If a person or organization is in breach of duty of care, they may be liable to a third party for negligence.

Practical terms

That may sound pretty abstract. So let’s make it practical. Duty of care means ensuring the safety of your international business travelers. It means creating a work environment that safeguards employee health during a pandemic or when working with hazardous materials. It means notifying and providing safe accommodations for workers exposed to severe weather or nearby other environmental threats.

In other words, duty of care means recognizing that your organization has an obligation to keep your people safe while at the workplace—wherever that may be.

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Duty of Care Then and Now

Duty of care originated as a common law principle in the 19th century. It further developed after the Second Industrial Revolution to protect factory workers from harsh and dangerous labor conditions.

Recently, though, duty of care has grown to become much more than an ambiguous legal term. In the past ten years, lawmakers and employers have put an increasing emphasis on the foreseeability of events—strengthening laws and recognizing that employers have a responsibility to employees, customers, and shareholders to assess risks and take appropriate actions to mitigate them. As a result, modern definitions of duty of care broadly encompass a company’s legal, ethical, and fiduciary duty to protect employees from unnecessary risk of harm when working or traveling on behalf of the organization.

But what is your company’s duty of care?

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. The responsibilities will look slightly different for each company—depending on how your employees spend their day at work. For example, a construction company’s duty of care efforts will likely differ from a software company’s. A social

But several considerations apply to every company: prevention, risk assessment, planning, and communication. No matter what the threat to your employees is, your company needs to take steps to prevent it from happening. Have a plan in place in case it does happen and have a way to communicate with your employees during and after the threat.

Duty of Care At Work

But what about the employer’s duty of care at work?

Duty of care has tangible implications for every company, no matter the size. Start by considering the worst-case scenarios for your organization. For example, what happens if an employee is on a business trip and there is a terrorist attack? Do you have a plan if an employee contracts an illness while working internationally? What if an employee suffers an accident traveling between job sites?

All of these questions raise important legal and moral questions about an employer’s responsibility to their employees. It’s important to distinguish and define the difference between an ethical and legal duty of care. Duties arising from ethics or morality are called moral duties, while duties created by the law are called legal duties. To protect your employees, customers, and anyone on company property, you need to consider both when creating a plan to fulfill your duty of care.

Who Is Responsible for Duty of Care?

At this point, you might be wondering who in your organization should be responsible for fulfilling duty of care obligations. That can be a complicated question—and the answer will partially depend on your company’s size and organizational structure.

In larger organizations, there may be dedicated employee safety positions. This will vary by company, but common job titles include EHS (employee health and safety), BC/DR (business continuity and disaster recovery), Risk Management, and Emergency Preparedness. These roles are specifically designed to handle general duty of care obligations.

But the presence of these roles should not give other managers in your organization the impression that they don’t need to worry about duty of care at work. Duty of care needs to be on the mind of all your managers.

If you are in charge of facilities maintenance, you have a duty to ensure that your facilities are prepared for a wide array of emergencies. If you are responsible for employee travel, you have a duty to monitor your business travel locations for risks. If you manage a team working remotely during a pandemic, you have a duty to mitigate the risk of infection for employees working on your team.

But in any organization—no matter the size—human resources will play a critical role. HR is the one department in an organization that works closely with every function of the business. This means that many duty of care concerns that require company-wide coordination will necessarily fall on HR.

At the very least, human resources should handle the communication and coordination portions of your organization’s duty of care obligations. Your HR department should be comfortable using your company’s emergency communication system and should be in charge of all internal-facing communication about duty of care initiatives.

Why robust communication is critical to fulfilling duty of care responsibilities

Timely communication is key to fulfilling your duty of care at work. Suppose your company has taken solid preventative measures, planned for the worst, and implemented a modern communication system. In that case, you are well on your way to fulfilling your duty of care at work.

The Impact of Duty of Care

Aside from the legal implications, putting employees first—especially when it comes to their health, safety, and well-being—is simply a good business decision. It ensures business continuity, maintains employee morale, and supports employee loyalty and retention.

Show your employees that you are taking proactive measures to keep them safe. As a result, they will be more motivated and productive than those that feel like a commodity. Statistics back this up. Studies have found that companies with exemplary safety, health, and environmental programs outperformed the S&P 500 by between 3 and 5 percent.

The same actions that fulfill duty of care obligations will also typically increase productivity when unexpected situations occur. For example, streamlining company-wide emergency communications is a critical aspect of duty of care during a pandemic. It will ensure that your employees immediately know if your company transitions to remote work—and how to minimize their infection risk. But taking these steps to streamline communication will also maximize productivity during a period of remote work. Thus, taking proactive measures to fulfill your duty of care obligations will typically pay significant dividends down the road.

To accomplish this, think about the risks your employees face. Then, take some time to re-examine your company’s measures. Are you prepared to keep your employees safe even in the case of threats like fires, hurricanes, and active shooters? You can never know which of those threats will impact your people. But one thing is certain: you will need a way to communicate with your employees.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the definition of duty of care?

Duty of care is the legal and moral obligation to safeguard others from harm while they are in your care, using your services, or exposed to your activities.

What are some examples of duty of care obligations?

Some examples include keeping business travelers safe while abroad, taking precautions to ensure that your facilities are prepared for emergencies, and switching to remote work when possible during a pandemic.

What can employers do to show that they are fulfilling their duty of care obligations?

  • Legal impact: Learn how duty of care laws impact every area your employees will be working in, or you could find yourself liable.
  • Planning: Consider all possible situations that could arise for your company and create your response plan in advance.
  • Policies: Employers should create a duty of care policy and circulate it among the company. This will help managers know what is expected of them and show employees what steps the organization is taking to ensure their safety.
  • Open communication: Let your employees know the measures you are taking to protect them. This will make them more receptive to doing their part and helping you help them.

What are the employers’ responsibilities related to corporate travel?

Employers have a duty of care to ensure their employees use safe methods of travel and should also monitor all business travel locations for time-sensitive and perpetual threats.

In Conclusion

Duty of care in the workplace is more important than ever, and now is the time to ensure your organization isn’t left behind. Fulfilling modern duty of care obligations means using modern solutions. Make sure that you have a robust, reliable, two-way emergency notification system in place. By having the right processes and tools in place, you’ll soon find it’s possible to efficiently and effectively communicate with employees about all kinds of emergencies and other potential threats, protecting both them and your business.

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