The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) sets out the general health and safety duties employers have toward their employees.

It also requires that employers protect others who may be affected by their work activity, including volunteers and members of the public. This means making sure everyone is protected by controlling risks to injury or health.

The duties owed toward volunteers and members of the public are less clear than they are for employees; however, it is important that employers understand these wider-owed obligations in order to fulfil their moral and legal duties.

Defining ’employer’

If your organisation has at least one employee, then the HSWA and the regulations made under it apply. As such, if anyone works under a Contract of Employment, your organisation will be considered an employer for the purposes of health and safety legislation – even if charitable or voluntary. The legislation sets out duties for employers in order to limit the risks to anyone coming into contact with your organisation.

Even if your organisation is not an employer specifically bound by health and safety legislation, it is still best practice to treat everyone equally when it comes to health and safety. As guidance from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says: “In general, the same health and safety standards should be applied to voluntary workers as they would to employees exposed to the same risks… HSE considers it good practice for a volunteer user to provide the same level of health and safety protection as they would in an employer/employee relationship, irrespective of whether there are strict legal duties”.

The following information is for organisations that use volunteers and/or engage with members of the public. It is not a full account but is intended to help your organisation think through some of the responsibilities owed.

"In general, the same health and safety standards should be applied to voluntary workers as they would to employees exposed to the same risks."


Duty of care

Aside from duties set out in health and safety legislation, all organisations owe people a common law duty of care. This duty of care provides that every organisation makes sure individuals do not suffer any unreasonable harm or loss as a result of the organisation’s activity. It requires that organisations take all reasonable steps to ensure the safety of volunteers and members of the public involved in or affected by their activity. 

The duty of care was developed by the courts to avoid injury or loss being carelessly caused to others – it applies regardless of your organisation’s size, income or whether it involves paid staff.

All aspects of your organisation’s work and activities need to be considered. Generally, a duty of care arises where an activity could reasonably harm someone, either physically, mentally or economically.

This duty of care can arise in many ways that are not always obvious, such as:

  • Loaning equipment to others.
  • Charity walks and sponsored runs.
  • Running fetes or fairs.
  • Organising day trips.
  • Selling food at a charity stall.

If a volunteer suffers personal injury while carrying out a task for an organisation, then the organisation may be held legally responsible. Liability depends on whether the organisation failed to take reasonable care of the volunteer. 

For example, a young volunteer left unsupervised in charge of a garden shredding machine could potentially suffer an eye injury if they fail to wear safety goggles. If this were to happen, the organiser would be liable if a court finds there was a failure to provide sufficient training, safety equipment and/or supervision.

Buildings and premises

All employers must provide employees with a safe place to work that is clean and free from risk of ill health or injury. Employers have additional responsibilities for the health and safety of any visitors and volunteers in their premises.

If your organisation owns, controls or is responsible for premises, then it similarly has a duty to make sure they are safe to use. Reasonable steps must be taken to ensure safety, including safe routes of entry and exit. This duty applies to all non-domestic premises, including places such as community centres, scout huts, and attached car parks or playgrounds, etc.

Premises must also meet all relevant health and safety regulations. For example, signs must comply with the Health and Safety (Signs and Signals) Regulations 1996.

Risk assessments, information and training

The HSWA says every employer must, so far as is “reasonably practicable”, work in ways that make sure non-employees are not exposed to risks to their health or safety. Additionally, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 place a specific duty on employers to assess the risks from their activities to people not in their employment.

Voluntary groups with no employees are not bound to conduct risk assessments but should consider doing them to help meet their common law duty of care. Assessing risk will help your organisation to identify hazards and put in place controls to reduce the risks to an acceptable level:

  • A hazard is anything that has the potential to cause harm, such as a faulty electrical socket.
  • Risk is the likelihood of it causing harm and the degree of harm it could cause, such as an electrical shock that could lead to a fatality.

Employers must provide employees with information about the risks in their workplace and the preventative measures taken and must also give necessary instruction on dealing with risks. Risk assessment results will help to determine if volunteers need to be given information and training.

For example, a hospice may have a duty to supply information and training to volunteers who lift patients in and out of bed. However, training is unlikely to be needed where a volunteer is simply running a raffle. As an employer, you should make sure your risk assessments always include the employees and volunteers involved in the activities being risk assessed.

Risk assessments are an excellent way of making sure potential problems do not become real ones.

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Health & Safety Policy

Employers with fewer than five employees are not required to have a written Health & Safety Policy but are strongly advised to have one. This will demonstrate your commitment to protecting staff, volunteers and members of the public. Your policy should outline procedures and responsibilities, including those of particular relevance to volunteers.

Volunteers should always be included in the policy as a matter of good practice. Involving volunteers in writing the policy will also enable them to become more aware of the health and safety issues within your organisation.

Making sure volunteers understand the health and safety issues surrounding their roles should form part of their induction process


Every organisation should make sure it has adequate insurance in place for the work and activities carried out.

It is best practice to insure your volunteers against any harm to themselves or their property while volunteering for your organisation, and to protect them against claims from third parties while carrying out duties for your organisation. 

There are several insurance options and policies to consider. Some are legally required, while others are optional:

  • Employers’ Liability Insurance – all employers are required by law to take out this insurance to cover employees in the event of an accident, disease or injury. If it is to be extended to cover volunteers, then this must be explicitly provided in the policy.
  • Public Liability Insurance – this covers your organisation in the event of injury, illness, death, and loss or property damage to members of the public. If this includes volunteers not covered by employers’ liability insurance, then it should explicitly say so. This insurance should also cover the acts of volunteers.

Your organisation may also need to consider professional liability, personal accident, motor vehicles or product liability insurance.

Hazardous substances

Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH), employers must protect employees, volunteers and members of the public from exposure to hazardous substances. Under COSHH, employers are required to assess the workplace for risks to health which may be caused by using substances hazardous to health.

Hazardous substances take many forms, including chemicals, products containing chemicals, fumes and dust. All necessary steps must be taken to control any identified risks.

Organisations that do not have employees are not bound to conduct a COSHH assessment but would be well advised to do so as part of their common law duty of care.  

workplace romance

Health, safety and welfare

Employers must do whatever is reasonably practicable to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and others who might be affected by their activity. This includes providing toilets, drinking water, clean air, a comfortable temperature, adequate lighting, cleanliness, enough workspace and safe workstations, sound floors and traffic routes, protection from falls and falling objects, and washing and changing facilities, etc. 

Non-employer organisations must similarly protect volunteers and the public. General duty of care questions to consider include:

  • Is the room temperature at a comfortable level?
  • Is the lighting adequate?
  • Is there enough space to carry out the activity?
  • Are areas kept clean and free from obstacles?

Fire safety and risk assessment

All public and community buildings, whether owned or operated by an employer or an organisation without employees, must meet minimum fire safety standards. Legislation requires the risk of fire be reduced to as low a level as possible.

If you require support with conducting a Fire Risk Assessment, Ellis Whittam’s experienced Health & Safety Consultants can do this for you.

Registering activities

All employers must register their existence with the HSE or environmental health department in the local authority. Organisations without employees do not normally have to register their activities with the enforcement authorities, unless:

  • Involved in dangerous activities, such as putting on a fireworks display.
  • Owning, controlling or responsible for premises and buildings, in which case you must register with the local fire authority.
  • Preparing, storing, supplying or selling food on five or more days in any five-week period, in which case you must register with the local environmental health department.

Always check with the authorities if in doubt about the need to register.

First aid

Organisations with employees have a legal duty to make a first aid assessment – to determine the level of first aid required. As a minimum, employers must provide at least one first aid box and display a notice telling staff:

  • The location of the box;
  • Who the first aider or appointed person is; and
  • Where the first aider or appointed person can be found.

An appointed person is someone chosen to take charge of first aid arrangements, such as looking after the first aid kit and calling an ambulance in an emergency. First aiders are people trained in administering first aid and holding current first aid at work certificates.

Voluntary groups with no employees are not bound to conduct a first aid assessment, although it is clearly good practice. It may also be useful to have at least one first aid trained volunteer. In certain circumstances, however, there may be a legal duty to provide first aid. For example, if a voluntary group holds a public event without first aid facilities and someone is injured, then the common law duty of care may be broken. Much depends on your organisation’s activity. For instance, an outward-bound group will have very different first aid needs than a morning coffee club.

Working with others

There can sometimes be gaps in the required health and safety when organisations work together. 

For example, your organisation might assume the other has taken responsibility. Alternately, conflict or confusion can arise if two organisations have differing Health & Safety Policies.

non disclosure agreements

When working in partnership, whether for one day or longer, you may find it helpful to work through the above list of basic health and safety provision. This should help make sure both organisations understand their responsibilities in terms of risk assessment, providing training and information, etc.

Decisions to be made when planning joint activity

Which organisation has ultimate responsibility?

How will the organisation with ultimate responsibility ensure its policies and procedures are implemented?

What will that organisation do if its standards are not met?

How will you make sure volunteers understand their health and safety responsibilities?

What should a volunteer do if concerned about health and safety risks?

How will this information be recorded?

Need support?

If you require advice and guidance on any of the measures mentioned in this article, our qualified Health & Safety specialists are available to take your call 24/7. Get in touch on 0345 226 8393.

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