Career Resources

Volunteers: Workplace Health and Safety Law

Volunteers: Workplace Health and Safety Law

By The Good Jobs Team, 15 May 2017

Recruitment process The social sector

Australian work health and safety law is complex, if only because the details differ between the states.

To give just one example, it's only work health and safety in New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory and Tasmania. If you're in Victoria or Western Australia, it's "occupational" health and safety.

Furthermore, the laws for volunteers aren't exactly the same as the laws for employees.

From the point of view of a medium-sized not-for-profit that has help from volunteers, though, it's possible to simplify things drastically.

All you really need to know is that if something goes wrong and someone gets hurt, and that's because of something that your group did (or didn't do), someone's going to come after you. It may be a government inspector, or it may be an ambulance-chasing lawyer, or if you're really unlucky it may be a reporter dreaming of a shocking exposé, but at that point it's no longer your choice.

You may or may not come under your state's workplace safety laws, depending on whether:

  1. you have any paid employees; and
  2. you have a workplace.

Unless you're a very, very disembodied group indeed (dedicated to playing online lightning chess games on the internet, say), it's safer to assume you come under the Act.

Besides, you want to provide a safe working environment because that's the right thing to do. Avoiding legal liability comes a long way down the priority list.

To set it out in more detail, a person conducting a business or undertaking must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable:

  1. the provision and maintenance of a work environment without risks to health and safety
  2. the provision and maintenance of safe plant and structures
  3. the provision and maintenance of safe systems of work
  4. the safe use, handling, and storage of plant, structures and substances
  5. the provision of adequate facilities for the welfare at work of workers [and volunteers]
  6. the provision of any information, training, instruction or supervision that is necessary to protect all persons from risks to their health and safety
  7. that the health of workers [and volunteers] and the conditions at the workplace are monitored for the purpose of preventing illness or injury of workers [and volunteers]

You don't just need to fix obvious hazards (fraying cords on the chess clock, say), you have to put a system in place that can ensure the right things are done, are reviewed, and are reported.

With occupational health and safety, it can help to focus your attention by playing the tape backward. Let's imagine that something has gone wrong: one of your volunteers has scalded themselves on the coffee machine, or done their back lifting a box of birdseed, or fallen down the steps in the dark after a lightbulb blew, and you're explaining yourself to your lawyer afterward.
"Who was responsible for supervising this volunteer?"
"Well, we're a pretty informal lot. People generally sort these things out for themselves."
"Mmm. What kind of induction training did she have before starting? Can I have a look at the paperwork you gave her on doing the job?"
"Oh, we don't go in for all that bureaucratic bumf here. We just point them at the task and let them go for it, really. It's worked fine so far."
"Mmm. So your incident reporting system hadn't been tested before this happened?"
"Incident reporting system? What incident reporting system?"
"Mmm. Mr Smith, I have bad news for you…."

On information and training, for example, the Victorian government instructs volunteers like this:

Your organisation has an obligation to give you the information, training and instruction you need to fulfill your volunteer role safely.

You are entitled to be given training:

  • when you start your volunteer role
  • before you start any new task
  • if new procedures or equipment are introduced.

Before starting your role, your organisation should:

  • have a system in place for managing volunteer activity
  • explain your tasks and the boundaries of your role
  • tell you how you will be supervised
  • outline any risks that may arise
  • explain the health and safety procedures
  • show you the emergency exits and other emergency and first aid arrangements
  • tell you who to talk to if you have any health and safety concerns
  • explain how to report any health and safety incidents and hazards
  • tell you what situations you should remove yourself from
  • explain arrangements for debriefing or counselling after an incident or other traumatic circumstance
  • give you a written statement setting out your role and responsibilities.

Ticking your way through that list would be a good start.

The other half of the equation, of course, is that you have to make sure your volunteers don't injure anybody else, either. It's all part of your Risk Management policy, with a tip of the hat to your Volunteer Management policy and your Injury and Incident Reporting policy.

And when it comes to paid workers you're a business like any other, subject to the standard law.

More information

Safe Work Australia: The Essential Guide to Work Health and Safety for Organisations that Engage Volunteers

Not-for-profit Law Information Hub: Work Health and Safety

Volunteering WA: Human Resource Handbook: A Guide for Not-for-profit Organisations