Rural Aid has 14,000 volunteers on its database, happy to head to farms to do anything from mend a fence to fix the plumbing. “The overwhelming desire of Australians currently wanting to do something for drought-stricken farmers is at an all-time high,” says Rural Aid CEO Charles Alder.
Farmers greatly appreciate the thought, but there can be hidden pitfalls. Some volunteers may never have set foot on a farm before so are unaware of the hazards of anything from unpredictable livestock to unfamiliar equipment or machinery.
As a result, NSW Farmers’ workplace relations manager Gracia Kusuma has fielded calls from farmers wanting to know what the legal implications are if a volunteer is injured while lending a hand.
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Volunteers can be assigned to help with everything from building fences to feeding stock – but safety discussions are important, especially for those who are not familiar with farm work.
The short answer is: it depends on the volunteer. If there is an accident, volunteers are not covered by workers compensation as this is strictly limited to paid employees, Gracia explains. However, if they’re doing work organised by more established organisations such as Rural Aid or BlazeAid, then those bodies have insurance policies to cover volunteers for medical expenses or loss of income (up to the insured amount) in the case of injury. NSW Farmers recommends farmers check with the organisations.
Charities should supply the farmer with a list of their responsibilities while the volunteers are on their property – that could be ensuring equipment is in safe working order, carrying out a Dial Before You Dig check, or even making sure workers aren’t drinking alcohol or taking drugs.
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If a volunteer is helping independently, however, even if they are volunteering through something like Rural Aid’s Farm Army, they are not covered for injury, unless they have their own private insurance. In both instances, it’s important farmers check who is providing insurance and ensure their public liability is up to scratch in case an accident ends up as a negligence claim. Volunteers are usually also advised to make sure they have ambulance cover, in case they need medical assistance for any incident not covered by insurance.
Come hell or high water, stock still need to be fed so volunteers can be a lifeline for farmers in times of drought.
“With the pressures of drought it’s easy to overlook the duty of care farmers have towards volunteers, but they are considered workers for the purposes of workplace health and safety considerations,” says Gracia.
That means volunteers also need to be properly inducted, should not be asked to do work they aren’t equipped or trained to do, and should discuss safety before embarking on specific work. Safety discussions are especially important when assigning volunteers from non-rural backgrounds to farm work. In addition, farmers should supply personal protection equipment as required.
Gracia says so far she’s had no reports of problems and she’d like to keep it that way. Certainly, Rural Aid feels farmers should not be discouraged from putting their hands up for volunteers. “If they can’t afford to pay themselves they certainly can’t afford to pay other people,” says Charles.
HELPING HANDS FOR THE FARMING COMMUNITY
Members of NSW Farmers can contact the workplace relations team by calling 1300 794 000.
Founded in 2015 to provide holistic support to rural Australia and primary producers. Its programs include the Buy a Bale campaign, Farm Rescue, Weekend Warriors and the Farm Army jobs board. It provides a huge range of services including counselling, free tradie services, farm-sitting and fodder supply.
Founded after the 2009 Black Saturday fires. It works alongside farmers to rebuild fences and other structures after a natural disaster including fire, drought and flood. It is also currently running Give a Farming Family a Break, in conjunction with the Lions Clubs’ Need for Feed, in which appropriate volunteers feed and water stock alongside farmers or – after induction – while farmers take a short break. Here to help.