This question comes from a volunteer with Surf Life Saving NSW who asks:

I am not in Emergency Services however I am a volunteer for Surf Life Saving NSW. I am interested in your views with respect to WHS PPE for our role.

It is accepted in the official documents that eye / vision damage is likely from ‘doing patrols’ without protective eye wear.

Under WHS PPE regs should vision protection therefore be supplied consistent with the act? That is how it looks to my untrained eye.

I am happy to accept that Surf Life Savers’ are providing an emergency service even if they are not part of a state operated agency, so in my view my correspondent is in an emergency service!

The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW) imposes various obligations on a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (a PCBU).   For the purposes of the Act an employee of a PCBU includes a volunteer so any organisation that has any paid employees must take reasonable care to protect the health and safety of everyone, employees and volunteers (see ss 7 “meaning of ‘worker’” and 19 “Primary Duty of Care”).

A volunteer association is not a PCBU (s 5(7)).  A volunteer association is “a group of volunteers working together for one or more community purposes where none of the volunteers, whether alone or jointly with any other volunteers, employs any person to carry out work for the volunteer association.”   This is the first hurdle, is a surf club a PCBU?  If no-one is employed by the local club that club may be a volunteer association in which case the local club is not required to meet the demands of the Act.   Surf Life Saving NSW on the other hand will be a PCBU.  The corporate structure set out at http://www.surflifesaving.com.au/about/organisational-structure-and-corporate-governance.pdf.   The 2013-2014 Annual report says (at p 18):

Surf Life Saving NSW’s workforce comprises 67 skilled and professional employees who support the work of our volunteers throughout NSW

But does a volunteer surf life saver volunteer for SLSNSW or their local club. In other words what is the relationship between the clubs and SLSNSW?  At http://www.surflifesaving.com.au/about/what-we-do they say:,

Surf Life Saving supports our 75,000 volunteer members in a variety of ways. We assist clubs and members in recruitment and retention, membership reporting and statistics and a range of member protection initiatives.

They do not say that the clubs are members, rather each volunteer life saver is a member.  I don’t think there could be any serious claim that life savers are not volunteers for SLSNSW, affiliated to a particular club, but very much part of the state body.

It follows that SLSNSW is a PCBU and must, according to s 19:

ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of:

(a) workers engaged, or caused to be engaged by the person, and

(b) workers whose activities in carrying out work are influenced or directed by the person,

Remember that a ‘worker’ includes a volunteer.

The Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 (NSW) reg 36 gives legal effect to the traditional hierarchy of controls.  that regulation says, emphasis added:

(1) …

(2) …

(3) The duty holder must minimise risks, so far as is reasonably practicable, by doing 1 or more of the following:

(a) substituting (wholly or partly) the hazard giving rise to the risk with something that gives rise to a lesser risk,

(b) isolating the hazard from any person exposed to it,

(c) implementing engineering controls.

(4) If a risk then remains, the duty holder must minimise the remaining risk, so far as is reasonably practicable, by implementing administrative controls.

(5) If a risk then remains, the duty holder must minimise the remaining risk, so far as is reasonably practicable, by ensuring the provision and use of suitable personal protective equipment.

The risk that we are considering here is damage to a volunteer’s eyes or vision whilst doing patrols, presumably from exposure to the sun.    Surf Life Saving can’t substitute the risk ie replace the sun, nor can they fully isolate a person.  They can provide some sun shelters but even they won’t work as life savers still have to look across the water which will be reflecting the sun.    Equally engineering controls, such as building shelters won’t remove the risk nor will administrative controls.  In short it is a fundamental part of a surf life saver’s work that they are on the beach when it’s sunny and even if they do not have to spend their entire patrol standing in the sun, they do have to be exposed to it both directly and by reflection.   It follows that the remaining control is ‘suitable personal protective equipment’ ie sunglasses.

I have been provided with the Surf Life Saving Australia Australia policy on ‘Sun Safety’ which says, inter alia, ‘It is the responsibility of all SLSA members to use all protective equipment provided (hats, uniforms, sunscreen, shade structures, sunglasses etc) …’  The policy refers to “Sunglasses – 100% UV resistant conforming to Australian Standard 1067 (as labelled on the swing tag) ‐ having side protection from the sun’s rays, but which do NOT obscure peripheral vision” as part of ‘Sun Sense Protection’.   The policy also says:

SLSA and affiliates will strongly encourage the use of:‐

i. sufficient shelter for patrols using either natural, or artificial shelters

ii. patrol hats, shirts and shorts to conform with the standards above

iii. broad‐spectrum water‐resistant SPF 30+sunscreen and sunglasses for all activities.

(I do not think, in the circumstances, it would be sufficient to ‘strongly encourage the use of’ the various protective items such as shade shelters, uniform and sunscreen.  The use of that equipment should be required). Finally the policy says:

In accordance with SLSA’s Patrol Uniform Policy, it is mandatory that patrol members wear the patrol uniforms provided at all times, except in a rescue situation or where conditions do not permit.

Without going into details on the uniform we are all familiar with the surf lifesaving uniform of the long sleeved shirts and broad brimmed hats.  I infer from this that they are supplied and not purchased by members.   So if that’s correct the inference is that Surf Life Saving NSW provides the uniform, but not sunglasses to its members even though the risk has been identified.

With respect to providing sunglasses, the issue would be whether that was ‘reasonably practicable’ which, pursuant to s 18, requires consideration of:

(a) the likelihood of the hazard or the risk concerned occurring, and

(b) the degree of harm that might result from the hazard or the risk, and

(c) what the person concerned knows, or ought reasonably to know, about:

(i) the hazard or the risk, and

(ii) ways of eliminating or minimising the risk, and

(d) the availability and suitability of ways to eliminate or minimise the risk, and

(e) after assessing the extent of the risk and the available ways of eliminating or minimising the risk, the cost associated with available ways of eliminating or minimising the risk, including whether the cost is grossly disproportionate to the risk.

The SLSA policy identifies the risk from the sun including that ‘UVR has been shown to cause eye damage, which includes cataracts and pterygium. This damage may start in childhood’.  It would seem that the likelihood of the risk (eye damage) occurring is high, the degree of harm is significant, the PCBU clearly knows of the risk, there are few ways of eliminating the risk given the task at hand, there are ways to eliminate the risk (discussed above) so then the question would be ‘is the cost of issuing sunglasses grossly disproportionate to the risk?’    I don’t know how much it would cost to include sunglasses in the uniform issue but it’s hard to imagine it would be so much as to be ‘grossly disproportionate to the risk’.   If that is correct then yes, SLSA, SLSNSW and local clubs, if they too are a PCBU, would be in breach of their primary duty for not including sunglasses in the member’s uniform issue.

Without being a life saver I would imagine there is another reason to issue sunglasses.  Life Savers are required to observe people swimming in the ocean. Their capacity to do so will be affected by reflected sunlight, in short, I imagine it’s harder to see people without sunglasses to reduce the glare off the ocean.  It follows then that in order to perform the task at hand, life savers would need sunglasses in order to be able to see.  If that is correct failure to issue them may be evidence of negligence if a person drowns but could not be observed because life savers had not been issued with a relatively cheap and obvious piece of kit to allow them to do their job.  Even if it’s not negligence, a coroner may not be impressed if a volunteer says ‘I couldn’t see them because of the glare and SLSA or SLSNSW hadn’t given us any sunglasses’.

One might say that volunteers should provide their own; they are the one’s volunteering to work in the sun, they should have them for their normal activities and we all like different types.  Some of us, like me, wear prescription sunglasses so issued ones would have to be of the nature that fit over normal prescription glasses.   All of that may be relevant to the question of what is ‘reasonably practical’ but I don’t think wold be sufficient to relieve SLSNSW of the duty to at least have a supply in case members forget their glasses or for whatever reason don’t have them.