Unsafe World

Friday, August 1, 2008
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Jurgen Pfrang, a 51-year-old German expatriate employed by DaimlerChrysler, lived with his wife and two children in Nanjing, China, in 2000. Pfrang heard a noise on the second floor and went to investigate, finding four burglars, one of whom stabbed him to death. The rampage didn't end there, as the intruders killed his 39-year-old wife and both children, ages 12 and 14.

Although this case is extreme and fortunately rare, the family might still be alive had they known to escape to a neighbor's house, according to Edward L. Lee II, a former U.S. State Department special agent and author of the book Staying Safe Abroad.

"The whole thing was completely avoidable," says Lee.

In preparation for an employee's relocation, he says, companies are so bogged down with job training, language concerns, pay structure and housing that there is often not enough time left for a serious discussion about safety.

"They either gloss over it or don't even mention it at all," says Lee.

Employees don't take safety seriously either, as they are more focused on transferring household items, finding a residence or enrolling their children in school.

"It has to be a joint effort between the company and the assignee because neither can do it alone," he says.

In his estimation, if employees haven't been formally trained, they can make mistakes, such as living in a ground-floor apartment or moving to an unsafe part of town. Only about one-third of companies have effective, formal policies on safety, says Lee. A effective policy should call for a pre-deployment conference and a risk assessment of the area, and also address what to do in an emergency, according to International SOS.

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"The rest just sort of throw it together without any kind of comprehensive plan," Lee says, noting that "there are a lot of expats being unnecessarily victimized."

Tim Horner, managing director at the N.Y.-based risk-consulting firm Kroll, says he noticed a change in the way companies handled security after the London subway bombing in 2005 and now that companies can be prosecuted in the United Kingdom for expats dying while on assignment.

Horner says HR executives need to create formal policies and plan for the worst. Companies should be arming themselves with plans for getting workers emergency medical care or evacuating them from the country.

"You have to get a policy in place well beforehand," says Horner, "You can't do it when the emergency comes up."

Jared Shelly can be e-mailed at

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