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Managing the Risks of Volunteer Programs

By Erin O’Leary and Shane Riccio

As the health and human services industry faces an escalating staffing shortage, senior living organizations are relying on volunteers more than ever. Fortunately, volunteers are rising to the occasion, contributing a record high nearly 6.9 billion hours in 2018, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. Volunteers in senior living facilities not only assist residents with daily tasks and support staff members on a variety of needs but are also relied on to provide much-needed companionship, particularly as Americans continue to live to older ages and experience increased levels of loneliness.

While the benefits are substantial, there are a few risks to having volunteers on site that senior living facilities must be actively aware of and take strategic action to mitigate. Implementing the following measures will help leadership manage any risks that could impact volunteers, residents, caregivers and their organizations as a whole.

Screening processes — Given that volunteers are engaging with patients much like a paid employee would, it is critical for organizations to implement a screening process for any new volunteers before they enter service. These individuals should be subject to a background check and other regular identification protocols to ensure they are suited to volunteer at the facility. This process may be abbreviated for short-term volunteers but should be more rigorous for those who will volunteer on a more regular basis.

Onboarding programs — Once volunteers have passed and completed necessary screening processes, facilities should host orientation sessions for the volunteers that focus on training and explain in further detail the duties and expectations, or “job description,” for the role. Some of the assigned tasks could be playing a game with a resident, serving them dinner or assisting with other activities of daily living.

It’s important to note that volunteers cannot be responsible for health care-related duties that would require more advanced training. Volunteers should understand their role and know not to take on tasks that they are not qualified for. As part of this onboarding process, volunteers should be required to sign a form noting that they understand the job description and its standards for safety and professionalism.

Volunteers should also be educated on guidelines to follow while on site at the facility, such as:

  1. Wearing appropriate attire. Volunteers should wear comfortable clothing and shoes with rubber soles to allow for easy movement and minimized risk of slips and falls.
  2. Following infection control protocols. To help reduce the spread of infection or illnesses, particularly given the current flu season, volunteers should be taught infection control techniques with an emphasis on appropriate hand washing before and after resident interactions.
  3. Remaining alert. Because senior living facilities are often full of resident activity, it is imperative that while on duty, volunteers remain alert and know how to recognize potential safety hazards.
  4. Reporting hazards immediately. All volunteers should know to flag any safety concerns or hazards with management. Implementing a quick response protocol ensures the situation is addressed before exposure to risk increases.

These orientation sessions should be followed by ongoing education that is closely monitored and documented throughout a volunteer’s time with the facility.

Understand insurance implications —Even when all safety protocols are followed, accidents and injuries can occur, so senior living organizations should work with their insurance brokers to understand how their insurance policy will respond to any incidents involving volunteers.

In addition to an insurance policy, a risk management plan is recommended. This should include how to handle an injury or incident that occurred while a volunteer was performing services or as a result of a volunteer’s actions. It must also address claims filed against the organization that result from harm or loss to a resident caused by a volunteer.

Signed waivers —To minimize potential liability, facilities commonly require volunteers to sign a waiver before entering service. This includes indemnification language for volunteers, enabling the senior living organization to transfer risk to the individual and to their insurance provider if an incident occurs while the individual is volunteering. Additionally, an organization’s general liability policy usually has a sublimit for medical expenses that could be deployed if a volunteer was injured without the organization assuming liability. If there are concerns over how any incidents involving volunteers will be addressed by insurance, an organization may consider securing an insurance policy that specifically covers volunteers.

Volunteer programs create the opportunity to proactively engage residents in a robust and welcoming environment and even serve as a valuable recruiting tool for high school and college students who could in the future become full-time staff. By implementing a thorough plan to address volunteer risk, senior living facilities can strike a balance that breathes new life into the culture of the organization, while ensuring any exposures are mitigated. For leaders unsure of how to get started with developing a risk management plan that meets their respective needs, an insurance broker can provide the knowledge and expertise needed.

About the Authors: Erin O’Leary and Shane Riccio are producers at Graham Company, an insurance brokerage and consulting firm committed to enhancing employee safety and business viability through an action oriented approach to risk management.