Employers and employees should be aware of their responsibilities.
All employers have to ensure they provide safe systems of work for their staff, but in the voluntary sector both employees and volunteers might occasionally find themselves in situations in which their safety cannot be guaranteed.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, 5 per cent of people working in the social welfare field experience violence at some time, and persistent verbal abuse can also be a serious problem. But if you are working with vulnerable people, can this risk really be avoided?
Most organisations will have thought through the health and safety implications of the work they do. For example, when carrying out a home visit to a disturbed client, it's wise not to go alone, and proper training, especially for volunteers, is crucial. Or if you are one of the 2.5 million people in the UK who, according to BackCare, suffer from chronic back pain, then lifting would best be avoided.
In fact, if you have five or more staff, it is now a legal obligation, under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, to carry out a risk assessment, so far as is reasonably practicable, and to record the main findings. If you have done so, those risks should, of course, be properly managed.
Oddly, however, case law suggests there is no obligation on an employer to be proactive about enquiring after an employee's health in normal circumstances.
This is particularly relevant when considering stress.
Take, for example, the trauma counsellor who finds herself traumatised by the same events she is helping others to deal with.
Stress, so the courts tell us, is not an illness as such and, contrary to what many might think, there are no jobs that should be regarded as intrinsically dangerous to mental health. Among other things, it has to be reasonably foreseeable that a psychiatric injury will result from that stress, and this can be a difficult hurdle to overcome.
Employers must ensure that potential, new or expectant mothers are not exposed to any significant risk. For example, it would be advisable for a pregnant woman to avoid handling any sort of chemical that could harm her unborn child.
Employers should conduct a specific risk assessment on receipt of written notification from an employee that she is pregnant, has given birth in the past six months or is breastfeeding. Depending on the risk, it might be necessary to offer her alternative duties or suspend her on full pay.
Whatever area of the sector you work in, it's important not only to put an effective health and safety policy in place, but also to involve everyone in its implementation. All staff and volunteers should appreciate that they share responsibility for the health and safety of themselves and their colleagues, and an open culture should be fostered in which these issues can be properly addressed.