Why volunteers are ‘employees’ – and why the law says you should protect them

Why volunteers are ‘employees’ – and why the law says you should protect them 

If your charity has employees, then you’ll already be aware you need employer’s liability (EL) insurance. It’s the law – whether you’re a charity, a small business, a big corporation, or anything in between. 

Simple, then, because an employee means someone who’s on the payroll and is taxed at source. Doesn’t it?  

Well, it’s not quite as clear cut as that, because it’s more a matter of the relationship between the person who’s giving the direction, and the person who’s carrying out the work. Even if they’re not being paid for it. 

See where this is leading? Yes, all the way to volunteers. 

Driving force 

Volunteers are the lifeblood or any charity and freely give up their time for their chosen cause. They do what they do for the greater good and to help make a difference to society. 

That might mean anything from providing advice and guidance, to lending a hand at events, caring for animals or visiting people in their homes. After all, volunteer roles are as varied as the many charities they help. 

So, doesn’t that make volunteers deserving enough of protection?  

Wise words 

The Charity Commission certainly thinks it does. That’s why it’s important to draw a big red ring round its guidance, which says: 

‘For insurance purposes, charities are advised to treat volunteers in the same way as they do their employees and to ensure that they are covered by the usual types of insurance…’ 

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) also puts a very wide interpretation on what makes an employee – although it’s a bit of a grey area as far as the letter of the law goes. They say anyone who takes direction from another and uses their equipment is one.  

And that’s important, because the HSE are the ones who can slap you with a fine if they think you should have EL, but don’t – a scary £2,500 for each day you were without it. 

Flirting with disaster 

That makes bypassing EL a very risky and potentially financially disastrous game to play. Besides which, it leaves aside the whole question of what’s right and decent. 

Volunteers generously offer their time of their own free will, giving up valuable hours they could easily spend doing something else. So surely that gives you a duty to protect them to the best of your ability. 

And that’s not just from a moral standpoint, either. Because again, the HSE has something to say about the guidelines you should follow to keep your volunteers safe from harm. 

Do it right

For a start, they point out volunteers should be placed in roles that are appropriate for them. There’s no use asking someone with a pre-existing back condition to help shift heavy equipment, for example.   

The HSE also asks that you make it clear to your volunteers exactly what’s expected of them. That means giving them a full induction and training if necessary, since springing a surprise only encourages mishaps. 

But what the HSE is really insistent about is your duty of care in providing a safe working environment for volunteers. And you can’t do that without conducting a thorough risk assessment to prise out any potential dangers. 

Once hazards are spotted, for example trailing wires, faulty equipment or loose floorboards, they must be fixed or at least flagged up. And we’re not only talking about volunteers’ normal working environment here – the same applies to off-site venues, including for fundraising events. 

Pear-shaped 

Still, accidents will happen. A volunteer badly breaks her ankle at a summer fete when her foot gets stuck in an unmarked rabbit hole. And another is badly traumatised, citing inadequate training, after volunteering as a counsellor for victims of abuse. Plus, what happens if one volunteer accidentally injures another? 

These and countless similar incidents can result in expensive claims for damages against your charity. And it doesn’t matter whether the individual is a designated employee or a volunteer – it won’t stop them suing you. Even if you are a charity, and especially if they’ve suffered genuine harm, 

Rescue package  

This is where employer’s liability helps, because it covers your charity against allegations of injury or illness to employees and volunteers arising from the ‘work’ they do for you.  

It’s also active on two fronts. First, it pays for the legal expertise you’ll need to deal with the claim, as well as all court costs (including those of the claimant if their case is successful). Second, it covers any damages awarded.  

That means your charity doesn’t take a potentially ruinous hit, while your volunteer is compensated, too. So, it’s a win-win on both counts. 

Damaging assumptions 

Be careful, too, if you’ve already got public liability insurance and assume your volunteers are covered under your existing policy. It’s often not the case, and you need to check the wording of your documents carefully. You may well find that there’s no mention of volunteers – and that’s a very big omission.  

Oh, and don’t forget the other people who sometimes help out at your charity: temps and seasonal staff; work experience students and interns; freelancers (if they’re in your workplace); part-timers; apprentices; and staff borrowed from elsewhere. 

They all count as employees in one way or another, and they all require protection too. 

In a nutshell 

To sum up, if your charity is a one-man band with no staff and no volunteers, then you’re off the hook, because you don’t need EL. But if you work with volunteers, part-timers, school kids or anyone else, there’s a very strong chance that you do. 

Better to be safe than sorry, as they say. Because alongside ‘sorry’ in this case goes the threat of eye-watering legal costs and compensation payments, as well as hefty fines from the HSE.  

The result? Empty coffers for your charity. And that’s a heavy price to pay. 


By Lisa Carr, charity insurance specialist at MyCharityGuard from PolicyBee, online insurance brokers.