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Death of volunteer exposes employer’s duty to protect

A charitable trust has been fined after a volunteer lost his life during restoration work on the Wilts and Berks Canal.

Peter Konitzer was fatally crushed when a section of a wall collapsed onto him in an excavation at Pewsham locks on 24 August 2016.

The 62-year-old had been inside the excavation removing temporary propping that was supporting the wall when the section collapsed.

Wilts & Berks Canal Trust undertook the restoration work as part of its project to preserve, conserve and improve the route of the Wilts and Berks Canal.

A joint investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Wiltshire Police found Wilts & Berks Canal Trust had failed to ensure the safety of volunteers who were working within the excavation. The temporary propping was inadequate and there was no clear method for the safe installation or removal of props during this renovation work.

The trust routinely used volunteers to assist in work to undertake tasks including clearing rubbish and overgrowth from various canal sites and general gardening type duties but had increasingly used volunteers for light construction works.

Wilts & Berks Canal Trust, of Dauntsey Lock, Chippenham, Wiltshire, pleaded guilty to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. The trust was fined £30,000 and ordered to pay £10,822 in costs at Swindon Magistrates’ Court on 24 June 2024.

In the UK, employers have several responsibilities for the safety of volunteers, though these responsibilities are somewhat different from those they have for employees. The primary regulations and guidelines governing volunteer safety include the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSWA), the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, and specific guidance from the HSE. Here's an overview of these responsibilities.

Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSWA)

  • General duty of care: Under Section 3 of the HSWA, employers (and organisations in general) have a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the health and safety of non-employees (including volunteers) is not put at risk by their activities.

Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999

  • Risk assessment: Organisations must carry out a risk assessment to identify potential hazards and put measures in place to control risks to volunteers as well as employees. This involves assessing tasks volunteers may undertake and ensuring appropriate safety measures are in place.
  • Information, instruction, training and supervision: Volunteers should be given adequate information and training regarding the risks associated with their tasks and how to work safely. This includes providing proper supervision to ensure they understand and follow safety procedures.

Health and Safety Executive guidance

  • Volunteer-specific guidance: The HSE provides specific guidance for managing volunteers, emphasising that while the legal framework is not as stringent as for employees, volunteers should still be protected from harm. The guidance highlights the importance of clear communication, appropriate training, and regular monitoring of volunteer activities.

Practical steps for employers

  1. Policy development: Create and implement health and safety policies that include volunteers, detailing the procedures and protocols they must follow.
  2. Induction and training: Ensure volunteers undergo a proper induction process that covers health and safety information relevant to their roles.
  3. Supervision and support: Provide appropriate supervision and support, making sure volunteers know who to contact with health and safety concerns.
  4. Insurance: Ensure that insurance policies cover volunteers, particularly in terms of liability for injury or illness that might occur during their voluntary activities.
  5. Regular review: Continuously review and update health and safety practices to adapt to any changes in the activities or roles of volunteers.

By following these guidelines, UK employers can help ensure that their volunteers are protected and that they comply with their legal responsibilities.