Volunteer Groups Must Create Safety Policies

In the United States, an estimated 59 million people spend a median of 52 hours each year volunteering, most often in religious, educational, youth or community service organizations, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and those volunteer activities can turn deadly.

The study, which analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries from 1993 through 2002 and other government sources, found that during that period, 501 people died from injuries sustained while volunteering.

Volunteers commonly perform activities such as coaching, campaigning, fundraising, delivering goods and serving on boards or neighborhood associations. However, certain volunteer work, such as firefighting, performing structural repairs or collecting roadside litter, can involve inherently hazardous duties or environments that increase the risk for injury or death. Volunteers engaged in this work might not be sufficiently aware of the dangers involved or any health and safety regulations associated with the work.

In addition, supervisors of volunteers might not have the same authority as employers of paid persons to make certain that health and safety regulations are followed.

Organizations that use volunteers should create or maintain policies that incorporate safety education and training into structured volunteer training and orientation, according to the CDC's Aug. 5 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, in which the study was published.

Organizations should designate persons with authority to identify and correct potential hazards and should monitor the activities of volunteers for adherence to their policies. All organizations, whether using volunteers or paid staff, should:

  • Identify risks and establish safety plans that include administrative measures for enforcement;
  • Implement any necessary engineering controls; and
  • Provide workers with any needed personal protective equipment.

To identify risks to firefighters, CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) operates an ongoing Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program that investigates deaths among firefighters, including volunteer firefighters.

Other helpful resources include the National Safety Council; the National Fire Protection Association; NIOSH, which offers several motor vehicle safety resources, such as "Work-Related Crashes Challenges and Opportunities for Prevention"; and OSHA.

(This is Part III of a three-part series.)

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