Health and safety for volunteers
Learn about tips and best practices to stay healthy and safe when volunteering in Ontario.
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Volunteering is a popular activity, especially for high school students who must complete 40 hours of community involvement (such as volunteer work) before graduation.
Young adults under the age of 25 are at much higher risk of injury while on the job than any other age group. Even as a volunteer, you may be exposed to the types of hazards that can result in serious injuries to young workers in Ontario.
Injuries can be minor, such as cuts, bruises and strains. Far too often, incidents result in:
- broken bones
- losing a finger, hand, toe or arm
An accident can have serious consequences. If an accident happens and you break a leg, you may suffer for years to come. Break your neck or spine and you may be in a wheelchair for life. Suffering a head injury can mean your brain never works the same. Some young people die from workplace injuries.
This resource does not replace the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and its regulations and should not be used as or considered legal advice. Health and safety inspectors apply and enforce these laws based on the facts they find in the workplace.
Report all injuries to your supervisor even if:
- you are volunteering with your parent or a family friend
- you feel that reporting will make them think less of your capabilities
- you think it's 'nothing'
- you're concerned about what others will think
Always call 911 in an emergency.
Eligible age to volunteer
You cannot be a volunteer:
- on a construction project or logging operation if you are under 16 years old
- in a factory setting or restaurant kitchen if you are under 15 years old
- in other industrial workplaces, such as stores, offices, and arenas, if you are under 14 years old
If you’ve never volunteered at a workplace before, you likely won’t know how to do the required tasks of that job. Your volunteer work is not the time for trial and error or learning as you go. No one should expect you to know how to do something you've never done before.
You should be trained on how to safely perform your tasks and provided with appropriate personal protective equipment. If not, ask for training and a demonstration. Don't perform the task until both you and your supervisor are sure you can do it safely.
Hazards of the job
If you’ve never volunteered at the workplace before, you likely don’t know the potential hazards of the job. Every job has hazards, but most hazards can be easily controlled, if you know what might be dangerous in the first place. Being tired and less attentive increases your risk of injury. Select volunteer times that don't conflict with other responsibilities and times you are most likely to be alert.
Safety tips to consider
1. Stay away from operating machinery wherever possible
You should be trained before operating industrial equipment, including:
- motorized carts
- mixers in a kitchen
- lawnmowers and trimmers
This equipment can tangle your hair around their gears, catch your clothing and cause severe damage to your arms or legs. They can pinch your fingers, grab your hands and amputate your fingers. If you must work with industrial equipment, insist on training.
2. Stay away from chemicals
Chemicals used in workplaces are often strong, contain ingredients not found in household products and can cause serious injuries to people who work with them without following strict procedures.
Under the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) there are strict requirements for hazardous chemicals and other substances, including:
- worker training
- providing safety information
If you can, avoid working with hazardous chemicals and other substances. If you must work with them, insist on training.
3. Stay away from biological exposure
If you work around people or in a laboratory, you may be exposed to:
- human waste
Animals also carry germs that can cause illness in humans. If you need to handle people, animals or things that pose a biological hazard, you need to know how to do it right. If you are exposed to these hazards, it’s important to use appropriate personal protective equipment and wash your hands frequently. If your work exposes you to biological hazards, insist on training.
4. Avoid slips and falls
Slips and falls from heights or even falling just a few feet have resulted in some very serious injuries. You could hit your head, break your arm or leg, or worse. In fact, slips and falls are one of the top reasons why people are admitted to hospital emergency rooms and one of the most common ways people get injured at work.
Watch out for wet, icy or uneven floors. Only climb to reach something over your head if you have a proper ladder. Do not climb up on shelves or stand on stools, rolling carts, boxes, or other objects around you. They may seem like good alternatives, but they aren’t. You deserve the right equipment.
5. Do tasks that are right for you
Just because someone else can lift boxes, doesn't mean everyone can. In a volunteer situation where there are a lot of different jobs to be done (like working on a food drive), volunteer to do a job that you think you can handle. Not everyone is physically capable of carrying heavy boxes or helping seniors in and out of chairs.