Health & Safety

It’s the season of goodwill! And, across the UK, amazing volunteers are giving up their time and contributing to a wide range of causes and events: from Christmas parties to charity collections. But concerns are sometimes raised about volunteer safety – for example, the risks to volunteer (as well as paid) firefighters in Australia. So what are the health and safety implications of having volunteers on your team?

Legislation

If your organisation employs just one person (even if the majority of your team are volunteers), you will usually be deemed an employer and therefore subject to the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. The Act provides that:

Section 2(1): It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.

It goes on to state:

Section 3(1): It shall be the duty of every employer to conduct his undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons not in his employment who may be affected thereby are not thereby exposed to risks to their health and safety.

This means that any employer must protect the safety of both its own employees, and the general public – which will include volunteers. The regulations created under the Act (such as the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998) will apply to your activities. As an employer, you will be responsible for ensuring that your organisation complies with the regulations, including preparing risk assessments and method statements; ensuring that both staff and volunteers receive appropriate training; and providing appropriate equipment.

In some circumstances, it is also possible volunteers would be considered employees – for the purposes of health and safety legislation, and vicarious liability for the volunteer’s actions if a claim is brought. Care should be taken to ensure that the terms of your insurance cover you for the activities and actions of all of those volunteering within your organisation.

Common law duties

If an organisation is purely voluntary (for example, a group of local residents), it will not generally be subject to the 1974 Act. Volunteers are simply expected to act with reasonable care under the common law – as would any other individual in day to day life, for example when driving – and of course, to comply with the law.

That said, for charity or community groups, one issue which is often forgotten is the risk of a damages claim if an incident does occur. If the group is not incorporated, for example as a trust or company, then the individuals involved could be at risk of meeting the cost of compensation if someone is injured.

If activities are being undertaken by the group on a regular basis, thought should be given to whether it should be formalised into a trust, a company or SCIO (Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation), or if insurance should be put in place to cover the work volunteers are doing. More information can be found on our Charities Blog.

What should voluntary groups do?

Helpfully, there is guidance available for charities and volunteer groups who are not sure of their obligations: the HSE website has a section dedicated to low risk voluntary organisations and the steps they may need to take. There are also a number of outlets online with high level advice. If however an organisation has more complex needs or undertakes a range of activities, you may need to seek specific legal advice.

Ultimately, the aim of health and safety law is not to restrict or prevent voluntary activities, but to ensure that everyone participating is kept safe – and that the valuable contribution that volunteers make is not itself put at risk by an incident.

Alison McAteer

Senior Solicitor at Brodies LLP
Alison, a solicitor in Brodies' Insurance & Risk team, deals with a variety of types of claim in both the Sheriff Court and Court of Session, ranging from personal injury to property damage cases. In particular, Alison handles cases involving health and safety law, employer's liability and public liability, as well as having experience dealing with road traffic accidents and clinical malpractice claims.
Alison McAteer

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