Safety at Work: How the WHS Act Affects the Volunteer

Volunteers are highly prized figures in our communities, putting their own time and skills to use that benefits us all – and for no payment. But even without any salary, volunteers are effectively at work, facing the same occupational hazards we all do. The new WHS Act addresses volunteering, something generally seen as a grey area.

The WHS Act defines a volunteer as someone who works without payment or financial reward for an organisation that also engages paid workers. But the act has established that volunteers are entitled to the same level of protection against accident and injury as paid workers, with the organisation they volunteer for responsible for providing that protection.

What is more, the type of work a volunteer does is also a factor, with some activities seen as domestic or recreational in nature, like playing a game with children. Since this is not considered work, the WHS Act doesn’t cover that volunteer.

But, any maintenance carried out on either equipment or facilities that is essential to the operation of the volunteer group is considered to be volunteered services. So, any service that would otherwise be payable (taxiing people from place to place, cleaning, repairing etc) is covered.

The WHS Act also identifies the responsibilities of volunteer officers, those who occupy a position on the board of a volunteer organisation. These individuals must take reasonable steps to uphold health and safety standards, and to ensure that the necessary resources (such as first aid supplies) are made available.

Still, this is not to say that responsibility is shouldered by organisations and their officers exclusively. Volunteers are expected to take reasonable care of their own health and safety too. This is done is a variety of ways, including following the health and safety instructions given to them, and co-operating with the policies and procedures officers have introduced.

The Essential Guide to Work Health and Safety for Volunteers, published by Safe Work Australia, provides a detailed review of the Act as it relates to volunteers. Below, you can read extracts from that guide, but you can read the full version by clicking on the link above. Alternatively, visit the Safe Work Australia website for access to the full range of fact sheets relating to volunteers.

Some Fact Sheet Facts:

Am I Protected Under the Model Work Health and Safety Laws?

You are a volunteer under the model work health and safety laws if you are not working for payment or financial reward although you may receive reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses. All ‘workers’, including volunteer workers, are protected under the model WHS Act.

Who Owes Me Duties?

Whether you are owed health and safety duties as a volunteer worker under the model WHS Act depends on the type of organisation for which you carry out your activities or work. Volunteers may carry out unpaid work for:

  • businesses, or
  • not-for-profit volunteer organisations that are run by volunteers for community purposes

Persons conducting a business or undertaking’

The main health and safety duty under the model WHS Act is owed by a ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’ (PCBU). The duty is to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers engaged in work for the business or undertaking. This duty is owed to a PCBU’s workers including to volunteer workers.

A PCBU may be a corporation, a partnership, an unincorporated or incorporated association, a self employed person, a sole trader or the Crown. Some volunteer organisations, such as those that run retail businesses for example, may also be PCBUs.

If you carry out work for a PCBU, as a volunteer or other worker, then you are owed duties under the WHS Act. If your volunteer organisation employs staff as well as volunteers, it owes you duties under the model work health and safety laws while you are carrying out work for the organisation.

Volunteer associations’

There are some volunteer organisations, called ‘volunteer associations’ which the model work health and safety laws explicitly exclude. These are groups of

volunteers, whether unincorporated or incorporated associations, working together for one or more community purposes, which do not employ any workers to carry out work for the organisation. For more information about volunteer associations, see the fact sheet Volunteer organisations and the model Work Health and Safety Act [393KB].

Even where the work health and safety laws do not apply, the general law duties of volunteer organisations to volunteers are well established. Australian courts have long recognised that volunteers are owed a general duty of care by the people and the organisations they support.

What Does the Organisation I Volunteer for Need to do to Protect Me?

If the work health and safety laws apply to your volunteer organisation, the organisation must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of all of its workers including volunteer workers. This does not mean that the organisation has an absolute duty to ensure that no harm occurs. If an organisation is run by volunteers this is a factor that will be taken into account in determining what is reasonably practicable for the organisation to do in any given circumstances.

Volunteers carry out a wide variety of work in a variety of environments, and the level of care that is required from the volunteer organisation will depend on the individual circumstances.

What the organisation is required to do to protect you depends on things like:

  • the type of company or organisation you work for
  • the type of work you carry out
  • the nature of the risks and potential injuries associated with that work, and
  • the location or environment where the work is carried out

Risks you may encounter from the working environment or work equipment will depend on the type of work you carry out and may include:

  1. exposure to and use of machinery, vehicles and chemicals
  2. unstable or unsafe structures
  3. working at heights
  4. unsafe entrances, exits, steps, stairs and ramps
  5. slippery floors
  6. cramped work spaces
  7. poor ventilation, excessive noise or insufficient lighting
  8. non-ergonomic work stations
  9. insufficient or non-hygienic toilets and hand basins
  10. challenging client behaviour, and
  11. excessive workload

The organisation or company you work for should make an assessment of the hazards and risks volunteers are likely to encounter and take reasonably practicable steps to eliminate or minimise those risks. These steps should include making sure that:

  1. the workplace itself is safe and without risks to health and safety
  2. equipment and machinery provided for use is safe
  3. there are adequate facilities at the workplace, such as first aid and toilet facilities, and
  4. necessary information, instruction and training is provided to allow volunteers and workers to perform their work safely.

The organisation should also consult with its volunteer workers regarding the management of health and safety generally and should ensure volunteers have a reasonable opportunity to contribute to the improvement of health and safety.

As a Volunteer, do I have Duties Under the Model WHS Act?

People who are ‘workers’ have duties under the WHS Act. As a volunteer worker, you only have duties if you carry out work for an organisation which is a PCBU.

If so, you have the same duties as other ‘workers’ at the workplace:

  1. to take reasonable care for your own health and safety
  2. to take reasonable care that your conduct does not adversely affect the health and safety of others
  3. to comply with any reasonable instruction that is given to you by the PCBU (to help it to comply with the WHS Act), and
  4. to cooperate with any reasonable policy or procedure relating to health and safety at the workplace.

If you are a coordinator or manager of volunteers and you work in a paid role, you will have the same duties to take reasonable care as other ‘workers’.

Ensure that first aid is given a priority at your workplace. First Aid Training is a critical element too not just for safety but also for WHS compliance. Alsco is a registered training organisation providing first aid training. Get yourself trained today!


Image Courtesy: Joe Loong

Disclaimer – These articles are provided to supply general health, safety, and green information to people responsible for the same in their organisation. The articles are general in nature and do not substitute for legal and/or professional advice. We always suggest that organisations obtain information specific to their needs.