Easy OHS

Volunteers Warning About New Safety Laws

Friday, January 18, 2013

Organisations which rely heavily on volunteers are warning they will have to have cut back on services because of changes to health and safety laws around the nation.

Under the law changes, volunteers are considered as workers and organisations say it will cost them more money.

Latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show a staggering 6.4 million people do unpaid work.

Some volunteers deliver meals to the sick and the elderly. Others supervise scout camps or work as marshals at community events like Sydney's Gay Mardi Gras.

But according to health and safety expert Ken Phillips, this is about to change.

"Everyone is now exposed in a way that they have not been exposed in the past and the expectations on them now are to have the full resources around occupational health and safety (OHS) that you would expect of a government department, BHP, Coles Myer et cetera, et cetera," he said.

The new laws redefine volunteers as workers for health and safety purposes, which means they now have a duty to do what is reasonably practicable to prevent injury.

Breaches to those laws can attract large fines with volunteers facing penalties of up to $300,000.

Ken Phillips says the changes are a source of great anxiety. He obtained a memo from Scouts Australia warning its volunteers that if they do not follow their organisation's new procedures, they may be fined.

"What's always happened with OHS in terms of volunteers, it's the full application of common sense and that's really what drives the current situation," he said.

"What we're now talking of is bureaucratic requirements in terms of red tape, form filling and so forth that just are endless.

"So the Scout Association have, in their memo, have said that all scout games are going to have to be reviewed.

"They're going to have to have safety procedures around those games, they're going to have to have documented them and have all the procedures in place.

"I've seen some stuff sent through to me today where people are saying, you know, the volunteer committee that manages [the] local scout hall, they're not going to let people use the scout hall for parties anymore because the volunteers could be held liable if there's an incident at the party."

Mr Phillips says the new harmonised laws are creating an environment of complete confusion, not providing better protection mechanisms.

"Under OHS law, normal OHS law, people are held responsible for what they reasonably and practicably control," he said.

"These laws, these new laws for some strange reason have said, well you'll be held responsible for what is reasonable and practicable. They've dropped the word "control".

"The big debate occurring in the legal profession is whether or not now people can be held liable for things over which they didn't have control."

But according to the head of Meals on Wheels in NSW, Leslie MacDonald, it is the charity organisations, not the volunteers, that will be exposed.

"The real concern that I have is that there have been no discussions with government at all at this stage, or no suggestion from government that they're going to cover the substantial additional cost that that's going to require," he said.

"In terms of worker's compensation premiums but also in terms of the additional workload that's going to impose on the paid staff in terms of making sure that the legislative requirements are being met."

Mr MacDonald says it is difficult to know yet what the extra costs will be.

"We haven't had a chance to analyse in detail the additional administrative requirements, but our guess is that we're talking in terms of the workers comp premium, a very substantial increase," he said.

He says with no extra support from the Federal Government, Meals on Wheels will be forced to reduce their services.

"I think it's going to mean a substantial reduction in the number of meals that we can provide. I mean that seems fairly logical," Mr MacDonald said.

The Minister of Employment and Workplace Relations, Bill Shorten, released a statement saying safe workplaces will not be adversely affected by the changes and that his department wants to avoid any unnecessary administrative burdens on volunteering organisations.

Reported By ABC News


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