Risk Insights: Volunteers and your duty of care
Volunteers provide incredible value and expertise to the public and third sectors each year.
It’s estimated that 14 million people formally volunteered at least once a month in 2020/21. They are essential in meeting the demands and needs of many not-for-profit services. Although volunteers do not have the same rights as employees, they still have a right to a duty of care not just to fulfil specific laws but to ensure good relations between trustees, managers, volunteers and employees.
This article primarily focuses on the duties of volunteer managers and leaders to ensure compliance with the law and the maintenance of volunteers’ rights.
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The rights/duties we consider are:
- Equality – As volunteers act on behalf of charities, charities should take reasonable steps to ensure that volunteers are aware of equality issues and prevent prejudice, discrimination, or mistreatment.
- Data Protection – GDPR applies when processing personal data for volunteers as well as when volunteers process the data of others.
- Safeguarding – Volunteers are also subject to Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks. Volunteers, stakeholders and beneficiaries should have appropriate measures and policies to protect them from harm.
- Health and Safety – The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 places a duty of care on employers to ensure a safe working environment for employees and volunteers. Under civil law, there is a duty of care to volunteers even if you are not an employer too. Relevant risk assessments must include volunteers.
- Insurance – Your insurance policy should adequately cover volunteers.
We first explore the difference between contractual employment and volunteer agreements and what to include in a volunteer policy – before going through the various duties and recommendations mentioned.
Do you need a volunteer agreement?
Employees have rights such as the right to a minimum wage because they are financially compensated and have entered into a contract. Volunteers, however, are not under a contract and do not have access to the same rights.
Usually, charities or voluntary organisations offer an agreement even though it is not compulsory. However, having a volunteer agreement and policy may show that a charity is serious about caring for volunteers.
The agreement expresses the relationship between individual volunteers and your organisation. A broader volunteer policy will detail how you manage volunteers across your organisation and outline processes and procedures relating to current or potential volunteers.
Making a volunteer agreement
You’ll need to establish the relationship between volunteers and your organisation to prevent exploitation and build good relations. A great place to start is looking at the 10-point best practice charter put together by TUC and Volunteering England (NCVO) in 2009 or Volunteering Scotland’s 10 principles.
These charters help you define the relationships and start to form an agreement relative to your own charity’s needs, of course.
The government states that an agreement usually includes:
- the level of supervision and support
- training provided
- liability insurance cover in place
- health and safety issues
- any expenses paid
NCVO adds that a volunteer agreement might outline an introduction, equal opportunities policy, safeguarding procedures, and some expectations.
You should be careful not to suggest obligations, be overly prescriptive about the future or use contractual language. It doesn’t take much for a volunteer to be seen as an “employed worker” in the eyes of the law. Moreover, NCVO suggests including a sentence that the agreement is not a legal contract.
Making a volunteer policy
The volunteer agreement may be included in a volunteer policy or handbook which outlines your mission, roles and responsibilities, essential information, and other relevant policies, rights and procedures for volunteers.
Policies should be accessible and transparent so volunteers are confident in using them. VASLAN have created a checklist of policies/statements that you could include in your volunteer policy.
Some of these statements and policies reference the issues below that you and your volunteers should know and manage.
Volunteers are not necessarily included in the Equality Act 2010, as it applies to employers and contracted workers. However, as volunteers act on behalf of your organisation and to show your commitment to removing discrimination or prejudice against volunteers, which could happen because of their role, it’s recommended you pay attention to and include volunteers in your equality, diversity and inclusion policies. It is also possible that if your organisation fails to take reasonable steps to safeguard volunteers, it could become a health and safety issue or an issue of harassment.
Some actionable steps you can take to ensure volunteers are kept safe from equality issues are:
- Make volunteers aware of equality issues and how they can mitigate discrimination against others, such as beneficiaries
- Include volunteers in your equality policies
- Consult with volunteers about potential problems and policy changes
- Set the bounds of roles and responsibilities
- Ensure adequate training
- Have supervisors, safeguarding leads or contacts that volunteers can access
- Monitor and communicate arising concerns
- Define procedures for making complaints or concerns
The Data Protection Act 2018 – implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) applies to any organisation responsible for handling personal data.
It will encompass your volunteer programme in a couple of ways.
As data processors
Volunteers may be involved in collecting or managing other people’s personal data. They should be aware of GDPR, their obligations and internal processes to handle data correctly, accurately, and securely. Making sure cyber security is adequate will also be a priority. You can read more about cyber security in our article here.
As data subjects
Your organisation also processes volunteers’ personal data and has the same duties in lawfully processing that data and deleting or updating it on request. Here is a reminder of the rights of subjects under GDPR:
- The right to be informed
- The right of access
- The right to rectification
- The right to erasure
- The right to restrict processing
- The right to data portability
- The right to object
- Rights concerning automated decision-making and profiling
Ensure your volunteer policy or handbook includes data management procedures if volunteers are handling beneficiaries’ personal data, for example, so that they adhere to GDPR. Your agreement could also state how you process the data of your volunteers. You can read more information on GDPR and how it affects volunteers here.
Practical steps to take
- Assess what you need to comply with using ICO’s self-assessment tool here.
- Appoint a Data Protection Officer if required for your organisation
- Communicate how volunteer’s personal data is handled
- Explain the processes volunteers should follow when handling the personal data of others
- Follow cyber security fundamentals
- Audit your data handling, security and processes
- Adhere to DBS rules on the retention of DBS reports and records
Health and Safety
Health and Safety Law
The Health and Safety law only usually applies to volunteers under an employer. However, it also includes volunteers in control of non-domestic premises or construction work, for example, a village hall committee or organising renovation of commercial property.
Charities that are employers have a duty of care to ensure volunteers can work in a safe and suitable environment and that they have the proper training or equipment to carry out their duties.
Employees and anyone who represents or works on behalf of your organisation are protected by the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and must be included in risk assessments, along with any volunteers. Volunteers should have the same level of protection under health and safety as employees doing similar or the same tasks.
When volunteering for an organisation without employees, civil law will apply. Voluntary organisations and individual volunteers have a duty of care to each other and the beneficiaries in their care. If there is a breach, individuals can sue for damages under civil law due to illness or injury caused by the negligence of the organisation or other volunteers.
Duties and managing risks
- Write a health and safety policy (legally required if you have 5 or more employees)
- Include volunteers in risk assessments (also legally required to be written if you have 5 or more employees). Risk assessments provide a mechanism to manage risk with controls proportionate to those risks. It will not eliminate the risk entirely. Many will be straightforward, like slips and trips, but working at height, construction, lone working or using machinery are high-risk activities. They may require a separate policy or risk controls. HSE provide advice and templates on this here.
- Consult with volunteers on health and safety issues
- Include the same level of protection for employees and volunteers carrying out identical or similar activities
- Ensure volunteers can do the activities required and are properly informed, trained and equipped to carry out those tasks
- Monitor and record accidents
- Take out appropriate insurance covers such as public or employer’s liability and any other insurance depending on activity and organisation structure.
- Check your responsibilities under RIDDOR 2013 to report certain incidents as an employer or person in control of work premises which are further detailed in HSE’s manual.
Caring for your volunteers will require you to support them as you perform the relevant checks to ensure the care and safety of all your stakeholders and beneficiaries.
The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 applies to voluntary organisations and charities and prevents people deemed unsuitable for working with children and vulnerable adults from entering work in those areas. Caring for your beneficiaries will mean carrying out the necessary precautionary measures when recruiting volunteers.
You should obtain disclosures for volunteers working with children or vulnerable persons if they are eligible. A risk assessment for volunteer roles will enable you to identify which roles require a DBS check.
Writing a policy
You can also help your volunteers by communicating the various measures and procedures required in your volunteer policy. For example, you should include procedures for dealing with child protection, contact numbers, designated safeguarding leads and any guidance for your organisation’s specific activities. NCVO detail some guidance for writing safeguarding and other policies on their know-how site.
You can also check out NSPCC’s guide on children’s safeguarding policies
Ann Craft Trust have a guide on tips when writing a policy for vulnerable adults
Types of risk and harm to be alert to can be found on the government website.
Furthermore, volunteers should know the procedures which protect them from bullying, harassment and other types of harm.
Taking steps to support volunteers
- Take a holistic view of safeguarding across your organisation – build protection into your recruitment, activities and services, including digital provisions and journeys.
- Make sure volunteers know who safeguarding leads are.
- Ensure volunteers have access to someone skilled and experienced with safeguarding when working.
- Train volunteers on child protection and adult safeguarding.
- Outline clear procedures on whistleblowing, bullying and harassment, complaints and raising concerns.
- Look for advice and keep up to date with regulatory changes.
- Comply with the DBS Code of Practice.
- If you work with other organisations, it will be vital to ensure partnerships share your commitment to safeguarding and work together to ensure your policies and procedures protect all parties. NCVO have a resource dedicated to this issue.
You should include in agreements and policies what insurance volunteers are covered by, what they can or can’t do under the insurance policies and any updates over time.
You must also have adequate insurance in place because of the liabilities presented, particularly regarding negligence and breach of duty of care under the health and safety directive.
Identifying who is liable and what insurance is needed for volunteers will depend on the organisation’s structure, and the roles volunteers will take. There are a variety of covers that can protect you and your volunteers, some of which are outlined below:
- Public liability (PL) insurance is the most common policy taken out by charities and community groups of all sizes. It is not a legal requirement, but you should consider it if working with the public or holding public events. It covers the costs relating to third-party injury, illness or damage to property. It can include claims from volunteers arising from injury or sickness as a result of negligence by the organisation. It can also protect you against loss or damage to property caused by the negligence of someone acting for the organisation, which may include volunteers.
- Employer’s liability (EL) insurance protects employers from claims of negligence made by employees who suffer injury or ill health due to their work. Unlike other types of insurance, EL insurance is compulsory for paid staff with a minimum of £5m protection; insurers exclude them from PL insurance, which is why it is essential to distinguish between those working under a contract and a volunteer. However, it is advisable to take out EL cover if you have volunteers to protect your organisation if claims due to negligence are brought against you.
Sadly, volunteers do suffer injuries as a result of negligence on the part of the organisation for whom they are volunteering. Whether it be a ‘slip or trip’ type injury or a more complex injury – volunteers are exposed to risk, just as employees are.Several factors determine the insurance premium for EL:
- the type, scale and risk level of your activities
- the quality of your health and safety risk management system
- your loss history (the severity and frequency of your past claims and accidents)
- Personal accident insurance covers accidents, injuries or fatalities that occur when your organisation is not negligent. This extension can be added to show your commitment to volunteers.
- Professional indemnity insurance covers volunteers if your organisation gives advice and other professional services and insures you for claims arising from injury, loss or damage resulting from the advice or professional service.
Speak to your charity insurance specialist about the appropriate covers and level of protection for your organisation.
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Disclaimer: Though we do not guarantee this, or the links included, will contain the most up-to-date guidance at all times, we have made a reasonable effort to ensure accuracy by referencing official government guidance and other reputable resources.