Managing volunteers

15 March 2023

How to protect the safety of volunteers including health and safety legislation, typical hazards and how to manage the risks.

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Many organisations rely on the support of volunteers to function properly. They make an invaluable contribution across many sectors, completing a wide range of tasks. Sometimes, meeting health and safety requirements is seen as a barrier preventing people from volunteering. This shouldn’t be the case. However, you may have to think about what precautions are needed to protect them from danger.

Managing volunteers: understanding health and safety law

Naturally, you will want to make sure that any volunteers are kept safe. Legal responsibility to do this arises from:

Under civil law, voluntary organisations and individual volunteers themselves have a duty of care to each other and those who may be affected by their activities. Where something goes wrong, individuals may, in some cases, sue for damages as a result of another person’s negligence.

To be successful, the injured person must show that the defendant had a duty to take reasonable care towards them, and they have suffered the injury through a breach of that duty. They must also show that the type of loss or injury for which damages are being claimed was a foreseeable result of the breach of the duty.

It is important to note that in civil claims, volunteers who have significant knowledge about how to complete tasks safely already (say as a result of their normal occupation), may be viewed differently. For example, where a painter or decorator volunteers to carry out such an activity they may well be expected to know how to use a ladder safely. This will depend very much on the facts of each individual case.

In addition to the common law, there is also criminal (or statute) law. This is the written law of the land, consisting of Acts of Parliament or Rules, Regulations or Orders made under them. Criminal liability can arise for failing to comply with the requirements of these, leading to prosecution, fines and, in extreme circumstances, custodial sentences.

The main statutory legislation is the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, supplemented by more specific regulations made under it. The Act applies to any organisation which has at least one employee. It requires employers to protect their employees and volunteers if they have them. In these circumstances, you should generally afford the same level of protection to volunteers as you do to any employees. For example, this may mean that you have to provide them with relevant information, training or personal protective equipment.

It is also important to note that certain aspects of the Act may still apply to you even if you do not have employees. In particular, this would be where you control non-domestic premises used as a place of work or where you provide machinery, equipment, appliances or substances for use there by others (e.g. volunteers, members of the public). Here, you must take reasonable steps to make sure that these are safe.  For example, if you were providing a ladder for use by volunteers you would need to make sure it is free from any defects.

You may also have other, more specific, legal responsibilities too. Examples include, the need to complete a fire risk assessment, manage asbestos or where you have construction work completed at your premises.

Typical hazards

Volunteers support a wide range of diverse activities, many of which are usually of low risk. However, volunteers may be involved in higher-risk activities. These include:

  • completing tasks at height, using ladders and other access equipment
  • property maintenance and other construction work
  • using power hand-tools, machinery and other equipment
  • completing tasks alone.

Managing the risk

Obviously, any action you take needs to be proportionate depending on your own circumstances. This will reflect your legal obligations; the size of your organisation; the numbers of employees/volunteers involved; and the nature of the tasks involved.

If you are an employer, you may want to:

  • seek the advice of your competent person
  • include volunteers as part of your risk assessments, planning activities accordingly
  • implement suitable precautions to protect volunteers and others, based on any risk assessments you have made
  • provide any necessary information, training and supervision for them, matching tasks to individual capability
  • provide personal protective equipment
  • provide adequate first-aid facilities and arrangements for dealing with any accidents should they occur
  • provide adequate welfare facilities
  • periodically check that your precautions remain adequate
  • keep any necessary health and safety records
  • include your arrangements for protecting volunteers in your health and safety policy.*

*This list is not exhaustive.

If you are not an employer, you may want to:

  • check your premises are safe, along with any access to them
  • make sure any equipment or substance you provide for use by others is safe
  • ensure that any lifting equipment is properly installed, maintained and checked
  • take suitable precautions where you supply equipment for or are controlling people completing tasks at height
  • plan events to identify suitable precautions
  • think about any necessary precautions if tasks involve individuals completing them on their own.*

*This list is not exhaustive.

Want to know more?

HSE has provided guidance on Volunteering: How to manage the risks.

Other useful health and safety information is available in our risk management hub.

Note: if you are in The Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey or the Isle of Man, then regional variations might apply. In this instance, you should check the guidance provided by the enforcing authority for your region. This will be freely available on their website.

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