Work for the Dole - Risk Management

Government’s recent announcement that it will expand the work-for-the-dole scheme promises plenty of debate about volunteer rights and responsibilities in the coming months. It’s timely to remind ourselves investing in volunteers is not just about funding. Best practice requires a serious operational commitment to risk management, writes Ansvar Acting CEO Deirdre Blythe.

There’s no doubt volunteering can be a wonderful win-win – a hugely productive workforce for organisations and for the individual the opportunity to contribute, socialise, and gain valuable skills. But in Australia today, organisations that engage volunteers can’t afford to be casual.

Whatever the shape of the final work-for-the-dole programme, I hope that we see an acknowledgement from all players that investing in risk management is critical to the success of any volunteer management programme.

Risk management not only reduces potential liabilities and reputational harm, it also demonstrates the desire to create a safe environment and protect the wellbeing of volunteers, staff and service recipients.  

Most people see goodwill and a gift of “free” labour as central to volunteering, but engaging a volunteer is not always cost-free. Harmonised workplace health and safety laws introduced around the country show no distinction between volunteers and paid staff. Both are now categorised as ‘Workers’ and equal protection is required both within Australia and overseas, and anywhere that can be deemed a ‘Workplace’ within the definitions of the Act.

We recently settled the claim of a retired electrician who fell from a ladder while sanding the wall of a building at a community working bee. The case demonstrated a graphic example of the importance of appropriate supervision of volunteers even in that otherwise described social setting.  The case also demonstrated the importance of matching the skill s of volunteers to the tasks to be performed.  

It’s Ansvar’s recommendation that all tasks that pose hazards should be carried out by trained staff or contracted professionals.

Even when volunteers are undertaking “non-hazardous” tasks, we actively encourage the volunteer organisations we work with to protect themselves, their volunteers and the public by ensuring they provide:

  • Procedures, protocols and adequate job descriptions to enable a safe working environment. This includes detail about how the volunteer organisation handles emergencies, grievances/harassment, personal information and privacy, health and safety.
  • Recruiting, interviewing and screening that are well managed, including reference and background checks.
  • Adequate Orientation. Familiarising volunteers with the running of the organisation. Introducing them to managers and supervisors, providing an overview of risk management policies and procedures designed to prevent accident and injury and an up to date, relevant job description.      
  • Training to give direction and skills to carry out assigned tasks. Training could be formal or informal, one on one or group sessions. Providing reference tools and guides is an important part of the training process. Volunteers should sign off on all training received.      
  • Appreciation and recognition to help volunteer retention. Exit interviews help gain insights into the volunteer experience. All of this valuable knowledge may also help improve business practices, and save time and money over the long term.

Australia already has a proud community of over 6 million volunteers and growing. With the prospect of a new pool of people coming on board, it’s timely for everyone involved to remind ourselves that successful volunteer placements are the result of a little bit of luck and a lot of good management. An informed, thoughtful, systematic risk management plan is fundamental to achieving the volunteer success stories we all love to applaud and celebrate.


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