The challenges of insuring volunteers

The government wants charities to increase the number of people volunteering their time and skills. But an increase in volunteers also means potentially increased insurance liabilities. Mathew Little investigates

Liable: challenge of insuring volunteers
Liable: challenge of insuring volunteers

Three years ago, the international development charity Tearfund settled out of court with a volunteer who had fallen down a well in the charity's compound in Kabul, Afghanistan. Sarah Shuffell, a media consultant, fell 25 feet when a metal plate covering the well gave way. She sustained fractured ribs and a fractured knee and developed a severe pulmonary embolism. She sued Tearfund for a reported £300,000, claiming negligence.

According to Martin Hall, head of procurement at BTCV, a conservation charity that works with 200,000 volunteers a year, cases such as Shuffell's are not as isolated as they once were. He estimates a five-fold increase in volunteer claims against his charity in the past 15 years.

"In the mid to late 1990s we were dealing with two to three claims a year from volunteers," says Hall. Nowadays, 15 claims a year is more typical. Claiming from charities is no longer considered a no-go area."

The Giving Green Paper, which was published in December 2010, spoke of "catalysing latent demand" for volunteer opportunities. It claimed that 3.3 million people were willing to start giving their time for free. The recent challenging economic conditions have also led charities to consider making more use of volunteers in order to reduce their costs.

Anne Hudson, business development manager for Markel, a specialist third sector insurance company, says that there's a general lack of awareness among charities about the need to insure volunteers. "Legally speaking, they don't have to insure volunteers," she says.

The only insurance that charities are required by law to have is employer's liability insurance, which offers protection if an employee is injured and the charity is negligent, and motor insurance if they run vehicles. Beyond that, insurance is discretionary. But the Charity Commission strongly advises charities to insure their volunteers as well.

Mark Restall, a trainer and consultant on volunteering, says the distinction insurers make between paid workers and volunteers is irrelevant. "What we are actually talking about is individuals carrying out work for an organisation and whether they come to harm," he says. "The fact that they are volunteers makes very little difference. It's still a breach of the duty of care."

If a volunteer does come to harm, says Restall, the damages can be extremely high. If the volunteer develops a long-term medical condition that affects their ability to work, as happened in the case of Shuffell, the cost could run to hundreds of thousands of pounds, if not millions.

Most specialist sector insurers will automatically regard volunteers as employees, but more general insurance policies might not offer such protection. "With other insurance companies, you might have to disclose that you use volunteers and say how many," says Hudson. "It might cost more money, but the charity will then have that protection if things go wrong."

It's advisable for charities to disclose to their employers the types of tasks their volunteers will undertake. For example, volunteers doing conservation work outdoors face a different set of dangers to those doing office-based tasks. Hudson cites the example of volunteers operating the lock gates on canals. "There are quite different risks involved in manual work than there are in clerical work," she says."Failing to disclose activities can entitle an insurer to refuse to handle a claim."

Charities also need to notify insurers if the activities of volunteers change. The charity CSV works with 165,000 volunteers a year and offers a variety of activities, some of which are more risky than others. Sue Gwaspari, director of part-time volunteering at CSV, says: "We do have a commitment to our insurers that if anybody is involved in unusual or dangerous activity, such as sailing or outward bound activities, we have to alert them in advance."

But Gwaspari says charities should take a pragmatic approach to risk. "Insurers are keen to make sure everybody is very nervous about the worst case that can happen, but my view is that you should do a thorough risk assessment of the involvement of the volunteer and get the appropriate insurance," she says.

Charities should also consider providing additional cover for volunteers. At BTCV, for example, volunteers are automatically given personal accident insurance, which provides cover even if the charity is not liable. If they are injured, volunteers receive a weekly benefit, as well as payment for the cost of treatment. Recent claims include a volunteer who lost teeth by being hit in the face by a tree trunk. "It's a feel-good factor in the event of a claim," says Hall. "BTCV would save money by withdrawing it, but as a volunteering-based organisation, custom and practice might make this controversial."

Personal accident insurance is a part of the package volunteers receive when they become members of the neighbourhood volunteering mutual Your Square Mile. A deal struck with the insurance company RSA means that members are automatically covered for accidents up to a value of £25,000. They also receive access to a free insurance advice helpline.

Paul Twivy, chief executive and founder of Your Square Mile, says that insurance is important for those people who volunteer regularly. "There is a culture of fear and anxiety that needs to be tackled," he says. "In addition to busting barriers and reducing bureaucracy, we need to reassure people and encourage them to feel secure and step forward to volunteer."

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