• Lisa Berton and Nick Noonan

Work Health and Safety – Remember to Protect Volunteers

Two recent Court decisions serve as a timely reminder for employers, as “persons conducting a business or undertaking”

(PCBU), that their obligations under work health and safety (WHS) legislation extend to volunteers.


Under WHS legislation, the definition of “worker” includes volunteers and as such, the obligations of PCBUs also extend to volunteers who are engaged by or working for the business.


Decision One - Port Sorell Bowls Club Inc v Dann [2022] TASFC 2


The Full Court of the Supreme Court of Tasmania has reinforced the obligations employers have to ensure they comply with their WHS obligations with respect to volunteers, in upholding a damages award in excess of $1 million.


Background


The Port Sorell Bowls Club Inc (Club) had an antiquated, simple four-burner barbeque which it used at various events held at the Club, including corporate barefoot bowls events and social competitions.


During the long use of the barbeque, the Club had developed a makeshift method to collect the fat from the barbeque by using a ceramic cup underneath the grill of the barbeque. In November 2015, an incident occurred where a volunteer was cooking sausages for some 60 people at a bowls event, when the ceramic mug overflowed and the fat caught fire. The volunteer in a panic turned off the gas, but the fat remained alight. With the safety of people in mind nearby, the volunteer in an attempt to move the mug severely burnt his hand.


First Instance Decision


In the first instance decision, Supreme Court Justice Helen Wood awarded the volunteer $1,074,881 in damages, finding the Club "was responsible for creating a situation that was fraught with risk and danger” and that it had breached its WHS duties in multiple respects, including failing to ensure a suitable, empty container was placed in a safe position under the barbecue.


Relevantly for PCBUs who engage volunteers, it was found the Club failed to give adequate instructions to volunteers and other people operating the barbecue on how to set it up properly or what to do in case of a fat fire.


The volunteer was also held to have been contributorily negligent to the amount of 15%, in that when he attempted to remove the ceramic cup, he did so without observing his surrounds.


The Appeal


In the appeal to the Full Court, it was the Club’s main submission that the primary judge erred in only attributing 15% to the volunteer’s contributory negligence, claiming that it was his own actions which were the immediate cause of his injuries.


The Full Court disagreed, dismissing the Club’s appeal and finding that because of the danger created by the Club, and the volunteer’s belief of the potential to harm others, it could not be said the apportionment of 15% made by the trial judge was incorrect.


SafeWork NSW v Camden Council [2021] NSWDC 709


In a NSW District Court judgment, Camden Council (the Council) was found to have showed almost “flagrant disregard” to WHS risks associated with tasks allocated to volunteers, which ultimately led to the death of a volunteer. The Court initially imposed a fine of $1 million, before reducing the fine by 25% to a total of $750,000 for the Council's early guilty plea.


Background


Volunteers from the “Men’s Shed” were given various labour tasks by the Council. On 3 July 2018, Mr Todhunter and Mr Gunn were given the task of laying pipes for water irrigation system works for the Council. Mr Todhunder suffered a fatal injury when he was hit in the back of the head by a pipe which was pulled by two vehicles.


In her judgment, Strathdee DCJ stated:


"The task that was to be performed was way beyond the experience, training and capacity of Mr Todhunter, and the [Council] should have been aware of that."


Volunteers from the Men’s Shed were engaged on the irrigation work despite a consultant's design plan which envisaged the irrigation work to be carried out by independent contractors and qualified tradespeople.


It was also found that a risk assessment report prepared in March 2016 (2 years before the fatal accident took place) found that the Council was not meeting its WHS obligations, and made a large number of recommendations to rectify this issue.


Despite this, the Council did not ensure any of the "high-risk" item recommendations were completed before the accident occurred 2 years later.


The Council's "serious" and "ongoing" failure to act continued over the 14 weeks it took to prepare and undertake the irrigation project, the Judge found.


Conclusion and Recommendations


These decisions illustrate that PCBUs need to be continually aware of their duties and obligations under WHS legislation as they apply to volunteers, and ensure safety systems extend to and cover volunteers.


PCBUs should:

  • regularly review and update work safety systems, including work health and safety policies and procedures;

  • conduct risk assessments to identify risks and hazards, and implement appropriate control measures, including with respect to equipment, tools and volunteer activities;

  • ensure safety training is provided to volunteers;

  • act promptly when WHS issues arise; and

  • ensure volunteers are only allocated tasks for which they are qualified and suitable.


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