Protecting workers in dangerous places

By Edwin Lane
Business reporter, BBC News

image captionIt is unclear exactly what security precautions were taken at the In Amenas site, where foreign workers were taken hostage

With millions to be made in the oil fields of the Middle East, or the mineral mines in unstable parts of Africa, working in dangerous places is par for the course for the world's biggest mining, oil and gas companies.

But the hostage crisis at a gas plant in Algeria has brought into focus the dangers facing the employees asked to work and live in such places.

BP, the British oil company, said that "a small number" of its employees were caught up in the crisis at the In Amenas site. It has temporarily removed non-essential staff from the country, and said the "priority is the safety and security of our people".

But with the hunt for natural resources and profit pushing businesses into increasingly dangerous places, are big companies doing enough to protect their workers?

Private security firms

According to Will Geddes, managing director of International Corporate Protection (ICP), a private security firm, large multinationals take the security of their staff very seriously.

"The safety culture is getting considerably better than it has been even in the last five years," he says. "Employees are educated about the situation they are going into, they are suitably trained, and there is crisis management structure in place."

His company is among the many UK security firms that provide everything from office-based risk analysis, to armed guards, and hostage negotiation for businesses looking to operate in potentially dangerous parts of the world.

The industry's clients include oil and gas businesses, but also banks, non-governmental organisations, government agencies, and journalists.

Some firms have been around for decades, but the private security industry expanded dramatically following the Iraq war in 2003, when private contractors sought to cash in on the US-led rebuilding effort, and needed the security to do it.

image captionThe workers at In Amenas were attacked while travelling to the local airport

Outsourcing risk analysis and security to private security firms is now common among big businesses moving into dangerous territories.

Mr Geddes says relatively recent corporate manslaughter laws mean large multinationals in particular are acutely aware that failing to look after their staff abroad may make senior managers personally liable.

Hostage training

What risk analysis was carried out by BP and other foreign companies operating at the In Amenas site in Algeria is unclear.

But John Drake from AKE Group, another UK-based security firm, says the threat from kidnappers has been present in the region for years.

He also cites the route for workers between their place of work and where they live as a typical "key area of vulnerability". Workers at the In Amenas plant were attacked while travelling in a bus to the airport, though Algerian officials say they had a police escort.

Mr Drake says that employees working in areas where there is a high risk of kidnap should also be trained on how to react to attacks, or a hostage situation.

"If they've been trained and been briefed, they will feel more confident, know what to expect and won't panic," he says.

image captionArmed guards may be used in particularly dangerous areas

But security professionals stress that security measures can only be prescribed on a case-by-case basis. What will be necessary for one country may not be appropriate for another.

"If you are on the Niger delta, you have armed bodyguards, you won't let your people go out on their own, or they live in a guarded compound," says one security analyst with nine years experience working in hostile environments with private security firms.

"On the other hand, in Colombia for example, you might avoid kidnap simply by leaving the house at different times, using different routes and different cars. It's about understanding that risk and learning how to mitigate it."

If the worst happens, and employees are seriously injured or are taken hostage, some corporations will already have have emergency evacuation plans in place, and even hostage negotiators on hand, particularly if a ransom is being demanded.

Training for staff can include advice on how to maintain morale and keep physically fit should they be held captive.

ICP's Will Geddes says there is "no environment you can't go into where you can't provide a minimum level of security".

But ultimately it is the companies themselves who must decide if the big profits from working in dangerous places are worth the risk.