Duty of Care at Work: Your Company’s Responsibility to Keep Employees Safe

duty of care at work

Duty of care—you might have heard the phrase tossed around by companies touting their dedication to their employees. You might just associate it with liability lawsuits and big payouts. But what exactly is it?

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.”

That may sound pretty abstract. 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. It means preparing your business to weather hurricane season with as minimal disruption as possible.

In other words, duty of care means recognizing that your organization has a legal and moral obligation to keep your people safe while at the workplace.

Duty of Care At Work

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

Duty of care may sound like a meaningless buzzword. But the reality is that it has tangible implications for every company, no matter the size.

Start by considering the worst-case scenarios for your organization. What happens if an employee is on a business trip and there is a terrorist attack? Do you have a plan if he or she 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 also where duty of care comes in.

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 the size and organizational structure of your company.

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 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, then you have a duty to make sure that your facilities are prepared for a wide array of emergencies. If you are in charge of employee travel, you have a duty to monitor your business travel locations for risks. If you manage a team that is 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.

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 concept. In the past ten years, lawmakers and employers have put an increasing emphasis on duty of care—strengthening laws and recognizing that it entails more than a simple legal responsibility. In a nutshell, duty of care means your company has the responsibility to protect employees from unnecessary risk of harm when working or traveling on your behalf.

But that’s pretty broad. What is your company’s duty of care?

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

But there are several considerations that apply to every company: prevention, 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.

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

The Impact of Duty of Care

But even aside from the legal implications, putting employees first—especially when it comes to their health, safety, and well-being—is simply good for business. 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. They will be more motivated and productive than those that feel like a commodity. Statistics back this up. Studies have found that companies that have 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 do occur. During a pandemic, for example, streamlining company-wide emergency communications is a critical aspect of duty of care. It will ensure that your employees know immediately 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. Taking proactive measures to fulfill your duty of care obligations will typically pay major dividends down the road.

So what does all this mean for your company? Duty of care may seem pretty abstract. But the reality is that it has real consequences for your employee’s safety, morale, and productivity. 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.

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.

Make sure that you have a robust, reliable, two-way emergency notification system in place. A system like this can help you get the word out quickly when a short-term emergency occurs and coordinate your company’s response to a continual threat. Fulfilling modern duty of care obligations means using modern solutions. Duty of care in the workplace is taking off—and you don’t want to be left behind.

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 make sure 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 open 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 to and should also monitor all business travel locations for time-sensitive and perpetual threats.


Want to learn more about how to fulfill your duty of care at work?


Download eBook