Last reviewed 26 November 2021

In comparison to hospices or acute hospitals, volunteering has been underdeveloped in some care settings. With over 100,000 existing vacancies across the social care sector in England and 60,000 more predicted by the National Care Association due to the mandatory Covid vaccination requirement, one in 10 social care posts could be vacant by the end of the year. It is envisaged considerable numbers of volunteers will be needed to help buoy up staff shortages. Deborah Bellamy suggests tips and key things care managers should know about volunteers and ensuring their health and safety in accordance with updated HSE guidance.

volunteers' hands

1. Seeing the wider benefits of volunteers

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) stipulates: “Volunteering should never be used as a replacement for paid staff” but that volunteers make a distinctive contribution. It is well-documented that volunteers enhance the lives and improve health and wellbeing of service users in care settings.

Benefits include establishing a connection between the home and local community, providing positive insights into provision of care as well as encompassing cultural differences, encouraging sharing of inter-generational knowledge and local history.

Age UK research found volunteers are most likely to be acquired via established relationships with or within the care home with service users’ friends or wider family members encouraged to engage in some way or linking in with local organisations.

Individual volunteers may be attracted to go on to explore career opportunities and may become a paid employee.

2. Who can volunteer?

According to government guidance, anyone can volunteer. Volunteers can be of any age, usually over 16 years, and from varied backgrounds. They might be studying, seeking employment, currently working, retired, and some companies provide protected time for employees to volunteer.

3. Planning for volunteer roles

Care settings may identify differing roles and opportunities to suit volunteers’ availability, skills, and interests, such as:

  • socialisation/befriending

  • supporting/organising social events and activities

  • beauty treatments/hairdressing

  • support for those whom English is not their first language

  • gardening

  • supporting service users with administrative tasks

  • housekeeping, such as bedmaking/tidying rooms

  • driving

  • helping with mealtimes/serving refreshments.

Each volunteering opportunity is unique, and matching volunteers to service users for befriending or other activities is reliant on managers’ in depth knowledge of service users’ personality and needs.

Organisations may have noticed changes in those who volunteer and some who paused or stopped activity because of the pandemic may now be willing to return, or others due to furlough schemes ending may have had to reduce or cease volunteering and return to the workplace.

4. Requirements for volunteers

When recruiting volunteers, prospective candidates should be informed of the requirement from 11 November 2021 to show proof of Covid vaccination or exemption, unless under the age of 18.

See a template Coronavirus (Covid-19) Mandatory Vaccination of Staff, Volunteers and Visiting Professionals in Care Homes (England) Policy.

It is vital to ensure reasonable steps are taken to verify those recruited are suitable and safe to volunteer in a care setting and potential volunteers must provide two satisfactory references. Health checks will be required if the role involves physical activity.

Managers should ensure they are up to date on how DBS guidelines have changed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. See the Government’s latest Basic Check ID Checking Guidelines from 1 July 2021 and the ID Checking Guidelines for Standard/Enhanced DBS Check Applications from 1 July 2021.

While volunteers are not covered by employment law, they are covered by legislation covering health and safety law and data protection, and the organisation’s regulations, policies, and procedures while on volunteer duty.

Managers should be mindful of:

  • Volunteers having the same level of protection for their health and safety as others, including workers and service users.

  • How they safeguard their volunteers and everyone who encounters them.

  • Volunteers being recognised throughout organisational safeguarding policies.

5. How to manage risk for volunteers

The duty to protect volunteers for any organisation with at least one employee apply under health and safety law.

Volunteers must be protected from any risks arising from workplace activities and employers must provide the same level of protection to volunteers where they carry out similar activities and are exposed to the same level of risk as employees. See the Health and Safety Policy topic.

Updated HSE guidance on volunteering suggests including volunteers in risk assessment processes.

The guidance clarifies areas for consideration when engaging volunteers, including:

  • effective planning and organising activities to ensure managers are aware how volunteers will be utilised

  • ensuring volunteers are covered by insurance policies

  • balancing tasks to individual volunteers by verifying their capability to undertake activities safely

  • ensuring effective supervision and monitoring arrangements are in place

  • recording accidents and near misses involving volunteers, ensuring they are followed up.

With regards to training and equipment:

  • volunteers must be provided with the right information, instruction, and training to enable them to can carry out activities safely

  • induction should be provided incorporating information on any hazards they may be exposed to

  • provision of appropriate tools and equipment (including PPE where required) and ensuring training in correct usage of such

  • ensuring regular maintenance and safe equipment storage and advising volunteers how to report damage or defects.

Effective health and safety management should not be a barrier to volunteering in care homes and assessments should be proportionate to the level of risk involved in the activities undertaken. A pragmatic approach should focus on significant risks with potential to cause real harm and suffering.

6. Risk assessments

Managers must include volunteers, alongside employees, in risk assessments to identify significant risks and implement effective control measures. This will facilitate management of identified risks that apply specifically to volunteers.

These should be documented, and relevant policies and guidance should reflect volunteers. See the Risk Assessment Template.

Managers should consult employees and incorporate volunteers in a two-way process to allowing them to raise concerns and influence decisions on managing health and safety.

Managers’ duty of care to volunteers, specifies Covid-19 risk assessments should be undertaken around volunteer activities and results shared. Volunteers should have the opportunity to discuss concerns around organisational approach to Covid-19 management. See the Coronavirus Care Staff Risk Assessment: Assessing and Managing Risks to Staff from Coronavirus (Covid-19).

7. Supporting volunteers when things go wrong

If volunteers wish to complain about governance of the organisation, health and safety, data protection or harassment, this may be referred to external agencies. See the GOV.UK website for more information.

NCVO advocates complaints or issues should initially be discussed between a volunteer and their supervisor or manager via ad hoc conversation or in a supervision meeting.

Volunteers should have someone designated to support them. With numerous demands on their time, managers may need to explore alternative ways of doing this. If there is an experienced volunteer who is actively engaged, they may be suitable to take on some responsibilities such as supporting elements of induction or checking in on new volunteers or some care settings have volunteer co-ordinators.

8. When to report incidents involving volunteers

The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR) requires the responsible person to report certain incidents involving employees or those affected by their work activity, including members of the public and volunteers.

According to the HSE, fatal incidents involving volunteers are always reportable (except for fatal road traffic accidents).

Non-fatal incidents involving volunteers are reportable where:

  • the accident arose from a work-related activity

  • the injured volunteer was taken directly from the incident to hospital for treatment.

Examinations and tests do not qualify as “treatment”, so incidents where individuals are taken to hospital as a precaution do not need reporting.

9. Where to find local information and further resources

Organisations can find local information and resources on involving volunteers by contacting their local Volunteer Centre.

The following websites and documents are also useful.