WHS Act and Volunteers – what you need to know

Risk Matters - Winter 2021

Volunteers Community Care RT

With the introduction of the Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) Act 2020 (the Act), there are changes to the workplace health and safety laws in Western Australia – but what does this mean for you?

Members should remember that if they already have good risk management and safety practices in place there will be minimal impact from the legislative changes on their day to day operations. The legislation has further formalised an employer’s safety responsibilities which in some areas were implied but not explicitly stated in previous legislation.

One of the key incoming changes includes the definition of ‘employees,’ as well as an expansion of the ‘employer’ concept.

Both of these will affect local governments who engage or manage volunteers – including bushfire volunteers.

The WHS Bill 2019 was passed by the legislative council on 21 October 2020, however will not commence until proclamation. The regulations are to be finalised before proclamation occurs with work on the WHS regulations progressing through 2021.

On proclamation, the Act will apply to all local governments, replacing the existing Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 (WA) and associated regulations.

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Volunteering in local government​

The benefits of volunteering have reciprocal effects on the volunteers as well as the organisation. Volunteering can improve self esteem, promote learning, facilitate social interaction, and enable the expression of personal values.

From an organisation’s point of view, volunteer management is based on the same principles as managing paid staff, the only difference being that volunteers are unpaid.

While not all local governments have volunteering programs, many do – and volunteering plays a vital role in a majority of WA local governments.

27% of Western Australians over the age of 15 are involved in some formal volunteering program, while just over 33% are informal volunteers.

Volunteering WA conservatively estimated the socio-economic and cultural value of volunteering to Western Australia in 2015 was around $39 billion, though naturally, during the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia volunteering rates dropped by 65.9%.

The benefits of volunteering
Figure: Volunteering Australia, 2021

Volunteer framework

It is important that volunteers are incorporated into your existing safety framework. Having a framework in place allows for monitoring of volunteers, their experience, and training, as well as ensuring relevant information on policies and procedures is shared. 

It’s important to remember that ‘good practice’ goes beyond compliance. Local governments utilising volunteer services must regard the specific needs of their volunteers in preparing them for duties whilst taking care to create and maintain a safe work environment.  


Under the current Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 (WA) organisations must, as far as reasonably practicable, ensure non-employees (including volunteers) are not harmed as a result of work carried out. The WHS Act does not change this requirement.

The incoming WHS Act will extend the same duty of care requirements employers have to workers onto volunteers.

“a person conducting a business or undertaking must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of –
(a) workers engaged, or caused to be engaged, by the persona; and 
(b) workers whose activities in carrying out work are influenced or directed by the person, 
While the workers are at work in the business or undertaking.”

While the legislation doesn’t set out specific steps on how to be ‘reasonably practicable’ in ensuring the safety and health of volunteers (as this depends on the circumstances of each case), generally it would be reasonable and practicable to:

  • Ensure work areas under the control of the local government are free of hazards
  • Take action to ensure that volunteers understand their duties and responsibilities
  • Ensure the work of local government workers does not impact the health and safety of volunteers
  • Develop policies and procedures to ensure that adequate processes are in place during engagement of volunteers 
  • Allocate sufficient resources to ensure the effective management and development of volunteer programs
  • Communicate and consult with volunteers on occupational safety and health issues
  • Induct and train/instruct volunteers in their tasks and ensure adequate supervision.
Bushfire volunteers
Photo courtesy of DFES Incident Photographer, Evan Collis

Bushfire volunteers

Many WA local governments manage volunteer bushfire brigades. The role of these volunteers is valuable and important to our local communities, but the very nature of the work can pose unique hazards.

Under the WHS Act, bushfire volunteers (and volunteers in general) are considered in the same context as a worker. Therefore the information in this article also applies to bushfire volunteers. 

For more information on managing bushfire volunteers or general enquiries regarding bushfire volunteer health and safety, please contact Emma Horsefield, LGIS Safety Program Manager, on 0407 957 932 or [email protected]

Workers’ compensation and volunteers

The 2020 WHS Act changes the definition of a ‘worker’ as it applies to work, health and safety legislation. This has caused confusion for some people regarding its impact on workers’ compensation.

It must be remembered that workers’ compensation is governed under a separate act – Workers’ Compensation and Injury Management Act 1981 (WA). For workers’ compensation purposes the definition of a worker is different to WHS. To meet the definition of a ‘worker’ a person must provide a service that an industrial award or agreement applies to OR be engaged under a contract of service for which they receive remuneration.

In short, workers’ compensation does not apply to volunteers.

WHS and elected members

There has been some uncertainty around how the WHS Act and associated regulations will impact elected members, particularly around the application of section 4, which excludes local government members in the definition of an ‘officer’. 

This does not remove an elected member’s obligations from elsewhere in the Act, and whilst they may not be considered an officer or worker, they are considered an ‘other’. For the purposes of their specific individual duty, section 29 provides a duty of other persons at a workplace. 

For an elected member to discharge their duty under section 29, they must:

  • Take reasonable care for their own health and safety
  • Take reasonable care that their acts or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of other persons
  • Comply, so far as is reasonably able, with any reasonable instruction that is given by the local government (as the PCBU) to ensure the local government complies with its duty under the Act. 

So in practice, when an elected member fulfils their obligations in that role, including when interacting with local government and participating in discussions and decisions for the local government, it is incumbent on them to consider the above. 

Six key elements of the WHS Act 2020

1. PCBU – A person conducting a business or undertaking

PCBU is replacing the term ‘employer’ and is a person conducting a business or undertaking. Workers are not considered PCBUs.

  • The PCBU has a duty of care to keep workers and others safe “as far as reasonably practicable”.
  • Local governments are defined as a PCBU. 
2. Who is an officer?

An officer is a person who has significant decision-making abilities and financial control over a PCBU (local government) or a substantial part of a PCBU. 

An officer has the authority within the local government to direct others, make system and process changes, access and allocate resources not normally accessible by workers.

  • The duties of an officer include: 
    Having an understanding of the business or operations that they are responsible for and understanding the WHS hazards and risks associated with the business or operations.
  • Ensuring that adequate resourcing is provided to manage the WHS hazards and risks and that the resources are being used correctly. 
  • Resources can be in the form of:
  • Supervision
  • WHS training for workers
  • Financial funding for WHS hazard and risk control requirements
  • Time allocated to workers for undertaking WHS hazard and risk management activities
3. Who is a worker?

A person is a worker if they carry out work in any capacity for a PCBU and includes:

  • An employee
  • A volunteer
  • Contractors  and subcontractors
  • Labour hire workers
  • An apprentice or trainee
  • A student gaining work experience
4. What is a workplace?

A workplace is anywhere work is carried out as part
of doing business and includes any place where a worker will be while performing their duties. 

A workplace also includes (but is not limited to) a: 

  • vehicle
  • vessel
  • cranes
  • elevated work platforms
  • jetties, bridges and pontoons
  • working from home
5. Psychological health has been extended  in the bill

Whilst existing legislation stipulates an organisation must manage psychological hazards, this has been extended within the WHS Act. 

It is a requirement to include psychological health as part of the hazard and risk identification and control processes.

The PCBU is required to have processes and systems in place for identifying, risk assessing and developing risk mitigation strategies and controls for any potential psychological health risks to workers.

6. Consultation 

Consultation is key to having a successful safety system, mirrored by positive safety behaviour. A PCBU must consult with workers who are likely to be directly affected by a matter relating to work health or safety.

There should be agreed processes and procedures between the PCBU and the workers on how this consultation will occur.

The consultation process may include the following elements:

  • Relevant safety information is shared with workers in a timely manner
  • There are mechanisms in place for workers to raise any work health or safety issues.
  • Workers are involved in decision making processes in relation to any changes to work environment.
  •  Health and Safety Representatives are involved in the consultation process. 
Other key changes include:
  • The introduction of positive due diligence obligations (as defined in the WHS Act) on officers of the PCBU.

Due diligence obligations require officers to:

Acquire and keep up to date knowledge of safety and health matters

Understand operations of the business and associated hazards and risks

– Ensure the provision of resources and processes to identify, eliminate or control risks to health and safety

– Ensure appropriate processes are in place for receiving and considering information regarding incidents, hazards and risks, and responding to that information in a timely manner

– Ensure processes for complying with any duty or obligation placed on the organisation under the WHS Act

Verify the provision and use of resources and processes referred to above

  •  The introduction of industrial manslaughter offences
  •  Prohibition of insurance and indemnification in respect of WHS offence fines

We understand the incoming legislative changes can seem overwhelming – but LGIS is here to help.
If you have any questions, please contact the LGIS WHS team on [email protected] or your regional risk coordinator.

Photo courtesy of City of Swan

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the PCBU’s duties under WHS?

The PCBU has a primary duty of care to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, that the health and safety of persons is not put at risk from work conducted as part of the business or undertaking.

The PCBU does this by, so far as is reasonably practicable:

  • Providing a safe place of work
  • Providing for safe systems of work
  • Provide Information, instruction, training and supervision on how to deal with hazards
  • Monitoring the health and safety of workers
  • Provide for the safe use of plant, substances and structures. 
What’s a safe system of work?

A safe system of work is a documented process that sets out the task to be completed, all the hazards associated with that task, how the hazards are controlled and what PPE or safety equipment is required. 

Are all volunteers covered?

No. Volunteers that are deemed to be part of a volunteer association are not covered by the WHS Act. 

Volunteers from associations are owed the same WHS duties as members of the general public.  

What WHS duties do volunteers have?

Volunteers have the same WHS duties as a worker. They must take reasonable care of their own safety and take care not to affect the health and safety of any other person through their actions. They must report hazards and incidents as they become apparent. Volunteers must also comply with any reasonable instruction and with workplace safety rules, policies, and procedures. 

Do I have to train volunteers?

Yes, all volunteers require some level of health and safety training as any other worker in order to perform their duties without harm. The level of training must be commensurate with the level of assessed risk associated with the tasks they perform and the environment in which they perform it in. All volunteers need to receive a health and safety induction when they commence work. 

What do I put into an induction for the volunteers?

The induction introduces the new volunteer to the workplace and should as a minimum contain an overview of the workplace; a description of the work to be performed; safety policies, procedures, and work instructions relevant to the work; reporting and consultation requirements; emergency contacts; safety and emergency response equipment; muster points; and known hazards associated with tasks and how they are controlled, including instruction in the use of PPE if required. 

Do I have to provide PPE to volunteers?

Yes, the local government needs to provide the health and safety PPE resources to volunteers to address the risks.  

This includes bushfire volunteers.

Can I hold a volunteer accountable for not following safety instructions?

Yes you can, this would likely be in line with your local government’s code of conduct. 

Volunteers should be reminded that there are health and safety procedures in place to protect them while they are volunteering for your local government. 

Where can I get more information?

Further information on managing WHS for volunteers is available from SafeWork Australia at

Or from Volunteering Australia at

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