Volunteering and WHS: how does it work?

Welcoming volunteers into your place of work can be rewarding for both sides – volunteers get to build their work experience whilst gaining personal fulfilment, while your business gets a performance boost and extra resources.

Studies show that volunteering drives employee engagement, which, in turn, increases bottom-line performance, productivity, and innovation.

The benefits of receiving volunteers are clear, but what about the responsibilities – namely, your responsibilities as their employer?

Are you actually their employer?

Yes. Even though volunteers contribute their time without pay, they are still referred to as ‘workers’ under most workplace health and safety legislation, which grants them the same rights as a paid employee.

Of course, this applies only if you are a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) and you also employ paid workers. If you’re technically a volunteer association that doesn’t employ paid staff, the WHS laws are different.

What are your responsibilities?

In a nutshell, you should ensure the health and safety of everyone on your workforce by taking ‘reasonable care’ to minimise risk.

The term ‘reasonable care’ is used here to mean ‘the standard of care that a reasonable person would do in a particular circumstance’, taking into account your knowledge, role, skills and resources, qualifications, what information you have, and your understanding of risk consequences.

Although it’s a vague definition, you can start by vetting volunteers before engaging them and then providing them with resources, proper equipment, first aid facilities, instruction and training, and information on how to report hazards and incidents.

What’s considered reasonable care differs in each situation depending on your line of business. For example, if your business delivers meals to homes of people with special needs, and you have volunteers working for you to make the deliveries, reasonable care may mean:

  • Checking their drivers licence is current
  • Checking their personal vehicle is roadworthy, currently registered, insured, and well maintained
  • Checking they are aware and informed about safety procedures and have read your company’s policy document
  • Checking they understand the traffic laws and road rules of your state.

Another example is if you have volunteers working from home; taking reasonable care to ensure their health and safety might be to advise on how to set-up a workstation that is hazard-free, safe and ergonomic, as well as doing regular check-ins and risk assessments. (If you do have employees working from home, check out Gallagher Bassett’s handy checklist.)

In general, you should also take extra initiative to inform workers about health tips and safety procedures, which can be done through tool box meetings, an e-newsletter or posting a bulletin board.

As of 2013, most states and territories across Australia synced their WHS laws to protect volunteers. This means volunteers in these jurisdictions are protected by the same WHS laws. However, it’s worth noting that volunteers are generally not covered for workers' compensation, therefore, it might be wise to take up insurance to protect  your volunteers.

There is no single ‘right way’ to guarantee the health and safety of your valued volunteers, but you can start by being proactive in making sure everyone on your team – including you – understands what they need to do to be safe. Talk to a WHS expert at Gallagher Bassett to get the most up-to-date information on preparing for workplace volunteering.

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