What’s the definition of a volunteer and how are they protected?

Risk Matters - Winter 2022

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Emma Horsefield

People Risk Manager, LGIS

Emma is the People Risk Manager for the LGIS Scheme, setting the direction of the program in response to member, sector, and industry trends. Emma manages a team of consultants focusing on people risk, including workplace health and safety, emergency management, and human resources. Emma’s extensive industry experience and knowledge covers the development and implementation of people risk initiatives aimed at improving behaviours and reducing workplace injuries.

Picture of Andrew Greig

Andrew Greig

Manager Member Services

Andrew manages the LGIS Member Service team, a group of dedicated account managers and account executives who are member’s first point of contact for all things ‘LGIS’. Andrew has over 15 years’ experience in the insurance and protection industry extending to managing a portfolio of both metro and regional Western Australian local governments, not-for-profit organisations, educational institutes and aged care facilities. He has a thorough understanding of commercial insurance and risk management principles, enabling the provision of advice for a broad range of business activities.

The new Work, Health and Safety Act WA (2020) (WHS) changed the definition of a worker to now include volunteers. LGIS members have been seeking clarity on how they can meet their obligations, and what types of protections are included with LGIS membership.

Volunteers and WHS

Volunteers play an important role in many local governments in delivering valued services to the community whether it’s books on wheels, revegetation work, community transport or the bush fire brigade. Local governments owe a duty of care to these volunteers and they are now formally included in work, health and safety laws.

Under the WHS Act a volunteer is a person who works for an organisation without payment or financial reward (but they may receive out of pocket expenses). The law also recognises volunteers as workers. This means that the Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) must provide the same protections to its volunteers as it does to its paid workers.

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WHS laws cover a range of activities when considering ‘what is work’, these include activities:

  • that involves physical or mental effort or the application of particular skills for the benefit of someone else, whether or not for profit or payment,
  • where someone would ordinarily be paid may be considered work,
  • that are part of an ongoing process or project may be work, and
  • where it may be more likely to be work if someone is managed or controlled by another person when they undertake that activity

What does the local government need to do?

The local government is considered a PCBU and as such has obligations to all workers, including volunteers, under the WHS act. These obligations can be broadly grouped into three areas:

  • Manage work, health and safety risks
  • Provide information and training to workers
  • Ensure consultation with workers.

But what does this mean in practice? Let’s look at an example such as a group of volunteers assisting with revegetation of a local wetland. The project is managed and coordinated by the local government.

In this situation there are a number of hazards that need to be considered in regard to volunteers working in a natural area. As the PCBU it is the responsibility of the local government to identify and assess the hazards, and provide volunteers with information on these hazards and how they can take steps to mitigate the risks. This includes providing appropriate training.

The local government should inform volunteers about general or site-specific hazards which may include the following: subsidence, vegetation, wildlife (snakes, bees, spiders), working alone, uneven surfaces and escarpments.

It’s important that hazards are discussed with volunteers to ensure they understand the hazards and the controls to mitigate them.

Document potential hazards, controls and responsibility. This is an important record for the local government and should also be provided.

Figure 1: Document potential hazards, controls and responsibilities.

Put a process in place to make sure that volunteers understand the hazards. This would typically include registration, induction, training, provision of personal protective equipment and work procedures.

What should volunteers do?

Volunteers also have personal health and safety responsibility. They have a duty to:

  • take reasonable care for their own health and safety
  • take reasonable care to ensure they do not affect the health and safety of other people, for example, other volunteers,
  • members of the public or clients they may be assisting comply, so far as they are reasonably able, with any reasonable instruction that is given to them by the organisation, and
  • cooperate with any reasonable policy or procedure that the organisation has provided to them.

A key term here is ‘reasonable’. Essentially what is reasonable care and what is expected of workers is what a reasonable person would do in the circumstances having regards to things like their knowledge, role, skills, resources, and information.

What protections are available to volunteers?

The West Australian Volunteers and Food and Other Donors (Protection from Liability) Act 2002 protects certain volunteers from incurring civil liability when doing community work on a voluntary basis. It also provides that community organisations that organise community work to be done by volunteers may incur the civil liability from which the volunteers are protected when doing that work;

The Act defines a community organisation as:

(a) State agency or instrumentality or a department of the public service; or

(b) an incorporated association under the Associations Incorporation Act 2015, a local government or other body corporate,

that organises the doing of community work by volunteers.

Where there are organisations that do not meet this definition, the volunteers are not protected by the legislation and may be personally liable for their actions.

Public liability insurance

Considering the Act and definition of a community organisation it’s in the interests of both types of groups to maintain public liability insurance to cover the liability of the group, and their volunteers if not incorporated.

Public Liability insurance covers the insured for their legal liability to compensate a third party arising from the negligent act or omission of the insured that causes personal injury or property damage.

LGIS members need to be aware that the LGIS Liability Protection cannot extend to cover the liability of other parties including these groups.

The only protection the local government can offer nonincorporated groups is to take over the governance, management, recruitment and organisation of these groups. In effect the local government becomes the community organisation that organises the work done by volunteers. If this occurs then the local government will be liable for the actions of those volunteers, and the LGIS Liability Protection may respond.

This approach increases the local governments risk exposure. You may incur liabilities due to the actions of volunteers that you are not protected for. In addition, there would be work, health and safety responsibilities to consider.

Personal accident Insurance

Personal accident insurance is not a prescribed cover required under legislation. However, it is seen as best practice for a community group to provide this for their volunteers if they are accidentally injured.

The key benefits of a personal accident policy are to provide:

  • a lump sum payment if the volunteer suffers a permanent disablement, or
  • a weekly income supplement if the volunteer is temporarily disabled, cannot undertake their usual employment and suffer a loss of income

It should be noted that LGIS Personal Accident protection only covers volunteers that the local government is responsible for as per the above.

If you have any queries on volunteers or the protections available to them, please contact your LGIS account manager.

Have a question you'd like answered?

Each month we take your questions to one of our LGIS team members to answer.

If you want to submit a question for next issue, email us at [email protected]

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