Co-op Best Practices > International/Distant Co-op Work Terms and Risk Management

International/Distant Co-op Work Terms and Risk Management

posted on October 1, 2001

Increasingly, as Co-op programs become more diverse and send students to distant or unusual locations, the opportunity for harm increases. Risk can be considered on two fronts – risk to the student, e.g., injury on the job, or risk to the institution, e.g., open to litigation through lack of due diligence. Some institutions, such as Queen’s University, have invested considerable attention to developing risk management strategies and resources. This article cannot address this issue in a comprehensive manner but is intended to raise awareness and provide some general strategies. Institutions sending students to various destinations, including international, have a duty of care to take measures to try to ensure their safety and preparedness.

Before sending Co-op students to unusual or distant work locations, coordinators should undertake a quick risk audit regarding the location (country, environment) and/or work setting (field work, industrial, etc.) and be prepared to not sanction a placement if the risk factor is high. Potential risks include: death, disability, injury, harm, missing person, incarceration, victim or perpetrator of criminal offence, property damage, negligence, failure to fulfill contract, or undue stress (in adapting to a new culture). Causes could include (but are not be limited to): transport accident, disease, infection, victim of criminal or fraudulent behaviour, safety lapse, war, natural disaster, insurrection, and inability to cope in a new environment

Co-op Coordinators and students can engage in a number of activities to reduce a student’s risk prior to departure and can ensure some “safety nets” are in place for the student during their work term. Coordinator/student precautions prior to departure can include:

  • Coordinator undertake a risk assessment
  • Check DFAIT travel advisory web site:
  • Ensure students obtain all documentation and medical tests/immunization required for country of destination (Note: some countries require an entry visa, some countries require the passport to be valid 6 months beyond the anticipated return date). You may want to request a copy for their Co-op file.
  • Ensure students arrange supplementary health insurance
  • Students should have home institution contact information, host institution emergency contact number (if applicable), and the number and address of the closest Canadian embassy, consulate or government office.
  • Determine the best method of communication, e.g., telephone, radio phone, fax, e-mail
  • Advise students of cultural norms or encourage them to find out as much as possible through other resources; offer country-specific cultural orientation using an experienced professional or international students, when possible
  • Ensure students know the environment they are going to and take appropriate clothing, equipment, medications, etc.
  • Encourage students to make arrangements for emergency funds prior to departure, in case of crisis.

Co-op staff should have the student’s departure and return dates, contact information and emergency contact as well as embassy or consulate information (at work and at home) in case of a political or medical crisis. Students should be encouraged to register with the embassy or consulate nearest them. Some institutions have developed crisis procedures and have an evacuation plan in place should the need arise. Some programs require students to sign a Waiver of Liability document that also includes a “release of information” clause.

While institutions are expected to exercise reasonable care, it is recommended that students be encouraged to take responsibility themselves to research and prepare for an international work term. They should also be advised to take measures to protect their own personal health and safety while in an international setting.

An institutional liability can arise either from breach of contract or negligence. Be aware of the potential for breach of contract – brochures and print materials can constitute part of your contract. Check brochures and print materials to ensure there is no promise of services that the institution or coordination staff have no control over. Be careful regarding statements offering assistance with or arranging accommodation or transportation. When things go wrong, the institution can be liable. In fact, the more responsibility that the institution takes on behalf of the student, the greater the institution’s risk of liability. The legal rationale is that the institution, in taking a greater duty of care, encourages the student to rely on the institution.

The focus is on prevention. While these procedures may seem a lot of work at the outset, especially if your program has never had a problem in this regard, September 11, 2001 has taught us that even when we least expect it, tragedy can strike. On those rare occasions, we need to know how to reach our students efficiently and that they have the necessary information and contacts they will need to make the best decisions for the circumstances.