What Are The OH&S / Workers’ Comp Implications of “Voluntary” Events and Activities?

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frowning kid with caption "Volunteered, Got Way Happier"Workers are often asked to “volunteer” for certain activities that have some association to employment.  The association may be strong (volunteering for overtime) or weak (attending a company picnic) but there are implications for safety and health as well as workers’ compensation.

Most volunteering” cases involve a worker working on a special project, putting in overtime to clear a backlog, or participating in a special events like conferences, open houses, or community event (parade, “home and garden” show, cultural festival) .  The connection to work in these examples is pretty clear.  A worker may volunteer to participate in these activities and events but injuries that may arise out of and in the course of these events are as work-related and typically accepted as compensable in most jurisdictions.

This coverage is an important protection for workers and employers. Workers continue to have access to the workers’ compensation coverage for themselves and their families; workers’ compensation coverage protects employers from suit for work-related injuries that may arise.  If the voluntary event were not deemed work-related, the employer might still be faced with liabilities in the event of injury.

Just because a voluntary event or activity such as working to clear a backlog may be covered by workers’ compensation does not mean an employer can forget about health and safety.  Occupational health and safety standards still apply.  Before initiating a voluntary weekend shift to clear a backlog or asking someone to pull an “all-nighter” to prepare a presentation for the next morning, an employer needs to ask questions about health and safety like:

  •  Are the protections normally provided available to the worker(s)?
  •  Are there special risks or hazards associated with this work that need to be identified? 
  • If the worker is working alone, what provisions are required and in place for his or her protection?

Suppose there is a big order due out on Monday and you ask for “volunteers” to work the weekend to fulfill the commitment.  Are the usual weekday resources for the health and safety of the workers available on the weekend?  Is there access to a qualified first aid attendant, open lunch area, alarm and production stops working, etc.? Does the week-end site security system change the risk of intrusion?  Are there scheduled maintenance activities such as floor washing and waxing or system purging that could increase risks to those not normally on site when these activities take place?

And then there are the “voluntary events” like corporate picnics, softball tournaments and project celebration parties.  Are these truly voluntary or are they “work-related”?  Depending on the jurisdiction and the circumstances, injuries arising from participation in such events may well be compensable.  Each case will be determined on its own merits but adjudicators tend to look at the expectations for attendance, where the event takes place, how involved the employer is in sponsoring the event, and the degree to which the activity or event furthers the objectives of the organization.

Expectations for attendance and participation are tricky.  A worker may feel compelled to participate particularly if the firm organizing or sponsoring the activity promotes it as a “team-building” event or if there is an implied advantage or accepted requirement of participation as part of career development.  Failing to participate may be what we used to call a “career-limiting” decision.   Is a participant really “free” to choose non-attendance in the event?

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