Risks Associated with Using Volunteers

Risks Associated with Using Volunteers

A retired electrician volunteered at a local childcare centre’s working bee on the weekend. While on a ladder sanding down walls, he fell and injured his shoulder and back.

Despite surgery and extensive rehabilitation, he continues to suffer constant low level pain years afterwards, and hasn’t regained full use of his arm since the incident.

He subsequently sued the childcare centre for negligence in failing to properly assess the risks and devise a safe method of work.  He also claims the equipment was unsafe, especially the ladder.

How did this happen?

The centre had put out a call for any volunteers to participate in their working bee to improve its grounds and buildings. The centre told potential volunteers on the day before the working bee which tasks needed to be completed, including repainting some of its buildings, laying new mulch, and cleaning the play equipment.

The centre provided some equipment, with volunteers bringing their own equipment to share. Staff from the centre told the volunteers to be careful, but otherwise trusted them to assess whether they are competent enough to do the work by themselves.

No formal risk assessment of the equipment, tasks, or capabilities of the volunteers was undertaken.

The volunteer was a retired electrician. He worked with several other volunteers to sand down and repaint the walls of a classroom. He used a ladder provided by one of the other volunteers. No-one steadied the ladder for him while he was working.

While he was standing high on the ladder, sanding the walls, he overbalanced and fell to the ground.

What was the result?

We settled the volunteer’s claim on confidential terms without proceeding to a court hearing.

Legal issues

Pursuant to the Wrongs Act 1958 (Vic) and common law, organisations are responsible in negligence for the safety of volunteers to a similar extent that they are responsible for their staff. 

Here, the centre did not undertake a risk assessment of the work performed, the capabilities of the volunteers, or check the equipment brought by the volunteers onto the site prior to its use. While the volunteer was a retired tradesman, he was not experienced in painting outdoors and no-one held the ladder for him while he was working.

Organisations need to ensure they have safety procedures in place for volunteer work just as much as they do for employees.

Just because a person volunteers for work does not mean that they have waived any rights to safety or adequate risk assessment.

Lessons Learned

  1. The same safety procedures undertaken to ensure staff are safe while working should be undertaken whenever volunteers work.
  2. The fact that volunteers are not working for money does not mean that they have waived a right to safety.
  3. A lack of training or experience means that volunteers should be supervised more carefully than experienced or qualified staff.
  4. Formal risk assessments should be done prior to allowing both staff and volunteers to work.
  5. A qualified person when undertaking potentially risky activity should supervise all volunteers.
  6. Without taking precautionary safety measures, the cost savings of using volunteer work are easily outweighed by the compensation claim by an injured volunteer.