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Avoid the legal vulnerabilities of volunteering

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This week is National Volunteer Week, which celebrates the hard work and initiative of volunteers across Canada. Whether it is teens vying to satisfy their 40 hours of volunteer work before graduation, or youths trying to get their foot in the door at an organization, volunteering is a popular avenue into many Canadian workplaces.

Volunteer work can be a rewarding experience for both the volunteer and the organization for which they volunteer, but it is not without its legal implications.

With that in mind, here are a few points for both volunteers and organizations:


  • Volunteers are not covered by the Employment Standards Act, 2000

Volunteers are not covered by the same standards as paid employees, which means they are not entitled to hours of work, public holidays, benefits, notice of termination, etc.


  • Volunteer work is “employment” under the Human Rights Code

In Rocha v. Pardons and Waivers Canada, an applicant for a volunteer position was asked her age. In ruling that the question constituted discrimination, the Tribunal also stated that the Human Rights Code which prohibits discrimination “with respect to employment” has a broad application, and covers volunteers. This means that volunteers can make human rights complaints, even if they are not classified as employees under the Employment Standards Act.


  •  The Occupational Health and Safety Act  (OHSA) can apply to volunteers

While the OHSA applies to paid workers, and not volunteers, organizations have an overall responsibility for the safety of persons in the workplace, which can include volunteers. For instance, in 2009, the City of Guelph was charged under the OHSA with failing to ensure that a wall, which collapsed on and killed a fourteen year old girl, was capable of supporting all loads. This charge was allowed even though the victim was not technically a “worker”, because the employer had not ensured the safety of the workplace*.

In addition to being responsible for the safety of volunteers at the workplace, organizations need to abide by the minimum age requirements for youth under the OHSA regulations. These minimum age requirements apply to teen volunteers working in particular industries. For example, volunteers must be at least 16 years old to be on (or work at) at a construction site or logging operation; at least 15 years old to be in (or work at) a factory or restaurant kitchen; and at least 14 years old to be in (or work at) most industrial establishments. There are no minimum age requirements preventing teens from volunteering at libraries, museums, schools, hospitals, recreational activities, or community events.


  • The importance of dialogue and training

For most teens, their volunteer placement may be their first interaction with a workplace. To ensure compliance with OHSA and to create a safe workplace, organizations should take the lead by:

  • explaining how their organization works, along with any policies and procedures;
  • carefully explaining the safety precautions and ensuring that volunteers know all the potential hazards, as well as the safety equipment they need to use or wear;
  • providing written instructions, where possible, for the volunteer to take home and review;
  • demonstrating how the job should be done, breaking the placement into small tasks, each of which is explained;
  • asking the volunteer if they can see anything about the job that may pose a risk to them;
  • observing the volunteer in the performance of the task to ensure that all safety precautions are taken;
  • correcting unsafe habits or behaviours as soon as they are observed;
  • maintaining safety standards throughout volunteer placement; and
  • ensuring the volunteer knows where to report incidents or otherwise receive help.

Volunteers must similarly ensure their safety by taking advantage of training opportunities; asking questions when they are unsure; being supervised as necessary; and reporting incidents immediately.

When workplace civility and safety are a priority in the workplace, volunteering can be a fruitful experience for both the volunteer and the organization.

Parisa Nikfarjam

*The City of Guelph was acquitted on the basis that they could rely on the drawing and representations of the architect who designed the collapsed wall.