If your church has paid employees as well as volunteers, it’s important to be aware that under the new Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) legislation your organisation has an obligation to ensure the occupational health and safety of your volunteers as if they were paid workers. Recent news items may have given the impression that the new legislation applies to all volunteers and volunteer organisations – such as Mums and Dads serving on the sausage-sizzle stall for the local kids’ soccer club – however this is not necessarily the case; only organisations which have at least one paid employee need to comply. However all organisations, whether they have paid workers or not, do have a common-law duty of care to their volunteers.
This “harmonisation” of WHS legislation has been welcomed by the CEO of Volunteering Australia (VA), Cary Pedicini, who believes that it will ensure that “volunteers are treated consistently across Australia”. VA have also been in conversation with the Employment Minister Bill Shorten regarding adequate funding support, particularly for smaller organisations who may lack the means to review their health and safety practices and may be in need of extra assistance.
There has also been some alarm that volunteers could be prosecuted if injury or harm occurs on their watch; however SafeWork Australia provided reassurance through their Media Release of 18th January 2012 – “Setting the record straight on volunteers” (no longer available) – that “there is unlikely to be a prosecution of a volunteer except in the most serious and exceptional of circumstances”.
SafeWorkAustralia offers assurance that congregation members of a church are not considered to be “workers” under the legislation, although ministers may be, depending on the situation. SafeWork also recommends involving volunteers in their own health and safety at work by holding regular meetings focussed on WHS, providing WHS information in regular newsletters, and informing volunteers about WHS issues through email.
Tags: health & safety, volunteers