An HSE investigation has begun after a voluntary worker died while working on a canal excavation at Pewsham Locks in Wiltshire.

A 63-year-old volunteer is thought to have been working to restore part of a canal when a lock wall collapsed on top of him.

In a statement, Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal Trust said it was “co-operating fully with the investigations carried out by the HSE and the police to establish the background to this tragedy and any lessons we need to learn from it”.

The Pewsham Locks fell into disrepair when the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal was abandoned almost a century ago. The volunteer was part of a dedicated team working to restore them.

Volunteers owed duty of care

According to HSE guidance “HSG192” on charity and voluntary workers, the same Health & Safety standards apply to the estimated 22 million people in Britain involved in charity or voluntary work as apply to employees. Indeed, although they work without pay the law requires volunteers to be properly protected. This is because they are exposed to the same risks as employees.

The Health & Safety of volunteers is governed by the Health and Safety at Work, etc., Act 1974 plus several regulations made under it.

Trustees, chief executives, directors and senior staff can be personally and criminally liable if they do not act properly in protecting volunteers from workplace risks. The HSWA 1974 requires they carry out their work activities in ways “so far as is reasonably practicable” that do not expose voluntary workers to health or safety risks.

If negligence can be established in the canal volunteer’s death then there can also be criminal prosecution for manslaughter, which is a common law crime. Individuals and companies can be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter.

“So far as is reasonably practicable”

The HSWA 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 provide a duty to assess the risks to volunteers.

Under the HSWA 1974 “so far as is reasonably practicable” the health and safety at work of volunteers must be protected. This general duty of care includes providing:

  • Safe plant, equipment and systems of work.
  • Necessary training, supervision, information and instruction.
  • Safe place of work with adequate access and exits.

Contact Ellis Whittam to make sure your charity or organisation legally protects its volunteers.

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