WHS: Hazard Management

Leaders must establish a process with the aim to eliminate or control as far as reasonably practicable, all foreseeable hazards related to all church activities, to enable safe systems of work and safe environment for the community participating in church activities.

All church personnel (employees and volunteers) are responsible to report any hazard to the person for whom they are accountable and take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of any person at risk.

There are many potential hazards in and around a building.  Some general examples are:

  • Inside:       Hot water; poisons/hazardous substances & materials; sanitation & hygiene; kitchens; floors; electrical; fire security; First Aid kit; toy boxes
  • Outside:    Play equipment; traffic; fences; vegetation; weather
  • Both:         Stairs/steps; ladders; glass; paint; asbestos; lighting; building works/renovations

The following is the 4 Step process in Hazard Management:

  • Hazard Identification
  • Risk Assessment
  • Hazard Control
  • Documentation and Review

All hazards that have been identified must be recorded on a “Hazard Report Form”.  The Church Council is responsible to ensure that any hazards are dealt with as quickly and effectively as possible.  This is important to meet the requirements of the Work Health and Safety Regulations 2012 (SA) and will further assist in identifying common safety issues.

Conduct “General Risk Assessments” on your systems, activities and processes by checking:

Work Health & Safety risks

  • physical surroundings (eg. kitchen, blind corners, electrical equipment, car parks, asbestos, passive smoking, playing surface, slippery floors, safety rails, working at heights, dangerous machinery etc.)
  • work practices (eg. overwork, sexual harassment, termination procedures, equal opportunity, night work, security)
  • transport policy (eg. bus license, car maintenance)
  • hazard management training (Is it safe? Does the church comply with the relevant legislation?)

Financial and administrative risks

  • financial controls (eg. cheque handling, expenditure authorisation, financial reporting, insurance, petty cash box, bank accounts)
  • investment risks (eg. building society crash, share loss, property market)
  • record maintenance (eg. computer backup, file integrity, privacy protection, meeting minutes, member database, accounts database)
  • legal status (incorporation status, Corporate/Government returns etc). What could go wrong? What does the church utterly depend on working? Get everyone together for a brainstorming session where you can go through a range of hypothetical possibilities or "what ifs" - what if all your records disappeared in a fire? What if a key staff member left suddenly? What if the church were sued for ten million dollars? - And ask how well the church would function if that happened.  More importantly – ask what you can do to ensure things don’t go wrong.

Unique risks

Professional liability

Church groups are set up to provide a service, to assist, to entertain, to support communities but with any special service that your group provides, there is the margin for things to go wrong. It could be advice, treatment; placing someone in a position you knew was dangerous. What are the possible consequences if something does go wrong?  Consider the potential for harm and how serious it could be.

Reminder:  Uniting Church policy is not to give advice unless professionally qualified to do so.

General liability

Employees or volunteers (even contractors and visitors) may have personal issues or behavioural problems that could result in causing harm to others (eg. verbal or physical abuse).  Ensure your screening service is adequate and all other measures have been taken to guard against these possibilities.  If any negative behaviour is observed, ensure it is dealt with immediately.  Contact Pastoral Relations for advice and assistance.


The church may find itself in a situation where it is innocent of wrong doing but nevertheless the subject of a law suit. Actions against the church of this nature can be very costly to defend.

Assess the situation

Consider all systems and whether they are adequate – including what could go wrong.  Things to look for:

  • Procedures – are there Safe Work Procedures in place and have they been well communicated to all that may need to perform the work.
  • Training – inductions on commencement and regular refresher/new systems training
  • Management/Supervision – including adequate planning, instruction, resources
  • Personal Protective Equipment – identify required/adequate PPE and ensure it gets used, stored and maintained in a good condition
  • Plant & Equipment – ensure correct/appropriate equipment is used, have adequate safeguards and for it to be regularly serviced & maintained in good working order
  • Design and Layout – ensure design and layout is adequate and has good accessibility
  • Work Environment – adequate lighting, safety signage/markings, protection from noise, temperature, weather elements, humidity, ventilation, dust, gases/fumes and general housekeeping
  • Personnel – experience, personal attributes (such as age, physical fitness, build, on medication, etc.) and any current personal issues which could cause distraction, being stressed or over-tired.

Fix what can be fixed

It may be necessary to change systems, procedures, physical plant, or attitudes to address the hazards.  In an office situation, the risk manager or the risk management committee should check that the necessary changes have been made.  In a typical church environment these matters need to be considered regularly by Church Council or the staff or committee to whom responsibility has been delegated.

Evaluate the effectiveness of the changes.  Review them regularly and modify them when needed.  It is impossible to foresee all possible risks, and the unexpected may still occur.  Even so, it helps to have procedures in place.  For example an evacuation plan can be beneficial in a number of different circumstances.

The church’s liability for whatever happens will be affected by whether or not all reasonable precautions have been taken to prevent injurious outcomes.  The church’s insurance cover protects against unforeseeable or preventable incidents.  However if the hundredth person to trip over the rug breaks their leg, the church can expect fewer leniencies because there were ninety nine chances to fix the problem before the incident occurred.

Evaluating and prioritising risk

Risk evaluation requires quite a lot of estimation and, in this context, the following grid may assist in categorising risks:

High Probability

Low Impact

High Probability

High Impact

Low Probability

Low Impact

Low Probability

High Impact

Managing risk

Risks that can be eliminated should be actioned as a high priority.  Risks that can’t be eliminated should be reduced or modified to bring the risk within acceptable limits.  Some risks may be shared or re-assigned (eg.  a requirement for outside contractors to carry out dangerous operations after making sure they have the requisite insurance). Uninsurable risks need to be supported with a very clear risk management plan.

During the assessment process it will be necessary to consider:

  • the balance between risk and benefit – for example, at one extreme, the risk of abuse to children would be eliminated if services to children ceased to be provided.  However, as services to children and introducing them to the Gospel is an integral part of every church’s mission, reasonable safeguards against risk can be achieved by requiring that all personnel must submit to a Criminal History Check.  Another common example would be engaging youth in an extreme sporting activity to create a sense of adventure and excitement versus the conduct of an exciting but, nevertheless, less risky activity.
  • the balance between risk and cost or convenience - for example, at an absolute extreme, the risk of falling down stairs would be eliminated by relocating to a single storey building.  The installation of handrails, warning signs and non-slip strips, on the other hand, may be sufficient to reduce the risk to an acceptable level.

The church also requires a strategy for dealing with potential disasters. There are a multitude of considerations (including):

  • Who is going to be assigned to deal with it?
  • Will it affect public relations for the local Congregation or the wider church?
  • Is the program fully covered/insured for the financial impact of claims whether or not the church is shown to be negligent? (Eg. a child suffering a serious injury whilst on church premises or in the church’s care).

Avoiding risk

Further advice on risk-minimising procedures (for example, in matters relating to the screening of employees/volunteers or the implementation of financial controls) may be obtained from the Uniting Church Synod office.

The church must always ensure that contractors who are engaged to provide services on church premises are self insured and that proof of insurance has been provided.  (Eg. an amusement machine operator must have public liability insurance and a presenter/trainer must have both public liability and professional indemnity insurance).

Minimising risk

Risk can sometimes be eliminated by requiring participants to sign waivers before attending an event.  However waivers do not constitute an excuse or protection against negligence.  Nor does it relieve the organisation from its duty of care to the person signing the waiver. A waiver is valid only if all the possible foreseeable risks have been fully explained and that everything has been reasonably done to either eliminate or minimise or control the risk.  A waiver works only to cover inherent risks, and does not cover negligence or excuse an organisation's failure to act when it could or should have.  This area is a legal minefield and waivers tend not to hold much credence in courts.  However, a waiver against third party liability may reduce the likelihood of legal action against the church if a document containing an acknowledgment of the personal risks that are involved has been signed.

Disclaimers (statements about what one would be accepting responsibility for or not accepting responsibility for), also does not excuse organisations from their duty of care.  (Eg. posting a sign denying liability for a tripping accident is not a protection against an obvious tripping hazard particularly if numerous complaints have been received and remedial action has not been taken.)

Insuring against risk

Insurance is only a form of risk management – it is not a substitute for risk management.  Insurance should only come into the equation when all possible action has been taken to minimise the risks.  However insurance remains relevant for unforeseeable events and risks that simply can’t be eliminated.  In this context, insurance is essential to manage the risk of financial losses and litigation.

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