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The information on this page is intended to help volunteer organisations and volunteers understand their work health and safety (WHS) duties under the model WHS laws. 

Everyone has the right to be safe at work, including volunteers. Volunteers play a vital role in communities across Australia and make significant contributions by carrying out unpaid work for a variety of organisations every day.

The model Work Health and Safety laws 

The primary duty holder under the model WHS laws is a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU). Each PCBU must do what they reasonably can to ensure the health and safety of workers while at work for the PCBU and other people who might be at risk from work carried out by the PCBU. 

Under the model WHS laws, a worker includes a volunteer. A volunteer is a person who works without payment or financial reward. Financial reward does not include payment of any out-of-pocket expenses such as travel and meal reimbursements.

Not all volunteer organisations owe duties to volunteers under the model WHS laws. Whether a volunteer organisation owes duties under the model WHS laws depends on whether it is a PCBU that employs one or more persons to carry out paid work.

Does the volunteer organisation employ a paid worker?

A volunteer organisation will have WHS duties as a PCBU under the model WHS laws where one or more persons are employed to carry out work for the organisation. A person may be employed by either: 

  • the organisation itself, or 
  • the organisation’s members, whether alone or jointly with any other members.

The organisation will owe a duty to both the paid worker and any volunteers it (or its members) engage. Examples of volunteer organisations that are PCBUs may be an emergency services organisation that employs staff, or a charity shop that employs staff. 

The model WHS laws do not apply if the organisation is a ‘volunteer association’ (whether incorporated or unincorporated). A volunteer association is a group of volunteers working together for one or more community purposes and none of the volunteers, either separately or jointly, or the association itself employ a person to carry out any work for the association. 

Examples of volunteer associations include:

  • a local woodwork club that meets once a month as a collective of volunteer members and volunteer office bearers, and
  • a senior citizens group set up for the purposes of encouraging social interaction and arranging social activities for members of the group, where the members and office bearers are all volunteers. 

A volunteer organisation will also not be covered by the WHS laws because it engages a contractor. For example, an accountant to audit its accounts or a driver to drive a bus on a day trip. 

Even if an organisation is a volunteer association and does not fall under the model WHS Act, it is good practice to comply with general WHS duties. Australian courts have long recognised that volunteers are owed a duty of care by the people and organisations they support.

Use the flow chart below to find out if the organisation owes health and safety duties under the model WHS Act.

Does your organisation employ and pay anyone

PCBU WHS duties 

If the model WHS laws apply to a volunteer organisation it has a duty as a PCBU to ensure, so as far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of all its workers, including volunteers. This means the organisation must provide the same protections to its volunteer workers as it does to its other workers, such as employees. The protections cover physical safety and mental health. 

The volunteer organisation may ensure the health and safety of its volunteers by doing things like:

  • confirming that any equipment volunteers use is suitable for the work and does not put their health and safety at risk
  • providing volunteers with personal protective equipment (if necessary), and providing volunteers with instructions, information and training about how to carry out their work safely. 

There is also a duty under the model WHS laws for PCBUs to consult workers, including volunteers, in relation to health and safety issues.

WHS duties for volunteers 

If their organisation is covered by the model WHS Act, volunteers have the same duties as paid workers in relation to taking reasonable care for health and safety.

They must take reasonable care for their own health and safety and ensure they don’t adversely affect the health and safety of others. Volunteers must also: 

  • comply, so far as they are reasonably able, with any reasonable instruction that is given to them by their organisation, and
  • co-operate with any reasonable policy or procedure that their organisation has provided to them.

A volunteer may also be an officer of a PCBU with due diligence duties under the model WHS Act. You can find more information on the officer duty in the health and safety duty of an officer guidance.

For further information see our:

Safe Work Australia has also published Information to help volunteer organisations and volunteers understand their WHS duties in relation to COVID-19. 

Further advice

SWA is not a regulator and cannot provide specific advice about complying with WHS duties in relation to volunteer work. For detailed advice, contact the WHS regulator in your jurisdiction. Contact details for all WHS regulators can be found below.

You can also seek further information and assistance from a number of volunteer peak bodies

Codes and guides
Reports and Case studies

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