Erin O'Leary

According to the Administration on Aging, one in every five Americans will be age 65 or older by 2030. Many of these individuals will be placed in skilled nursing facilities and assisted living communities, where help with meals, personal care and transportation is necessary.

Because this statistic has doubled since 2000, senior care organizations will rely on volunteers more than ever to assist residents with daily tasks and to keep them safe, all while providing needed and beneficial companionship.

Although volunteers are an incredible asset to senior care organizations, there are risks associated with having them onsite. Before they step foot in the assisted living or nursing home setting, volunteers should be required to read and sign an agreement that outlines the job description, confidentiality agreement, professional boundaries, and safety standards. The volunteer onboarding process is a key ingredient in having a successful and productive volunteer program.

Organizations also should host orientation sessions that focus on training and explain in more detail the roles and expectations of volunteers. This will help avoid the possibility of having a volunteer in a situation that is outside of their job description where they are more likely to be injured or injure someone else.

Maintaining ongoing volunteer education and training is an excellent way to mitigate risk and encourage quality care. Managers at senior care organizations should keep lines of communication open to ensure volunteers are providing services and support in a safe manner.

Volunteers should also follow the guidelines:

1.   Wear appropriate attire. Volunteers should wear comfortable clothing and shoes with rubber soles. This type of shoe will reduce the risk of slips and falls both indoors and outdoors and comfortable clothing allows for flexible and efficient movement.

2.  Follow infection control protocols. To help to reduce the spread of infection or illness, volunteers should be taught infection control principles with an emphasis on good hand washing techniques. Volunteers should wash their hands before and after direct resident interactions.

3.  Remain alert. Because long-term care facilities are busy and are often full of resident activity, volunteer orientation should stress the importance of remaining alert. In addition, the orientation should provide tips for volunteers to help them recognize any safety hazards or changing conditions.

4.  Report hazards. All volunteers should be taught to immediately flag any safety concerns or hazards with facility management. Implementing a quick response protocol will significantly reduce the potential for risk.

Even if these guidelines are closely followed, injuries can still occur. That is why it is important that senior care organizations work with their insurance broker to develop a risk management plan which outlines how their insurance policy will respond for volunteers. The plan should include how to manage an injury or loss that occurred while a volunteer was performing services for the organization or was caused by another volunteer or resident, and what type of benefits a volunteer is provided if they are injured. It must also address claims filed against the organization that result from harm or loss to a resident caused by a volunteer.

It’s critical to understand that volunteers will typically not be covered by an organization’s workers compensation policy. That means that if a volunteer is injured, that person could sue your organization and then your organization’s general liability policy would respond. An alternative solution would be for the senior care organization to make a strategic decision to include a waiver that all volunteers sign during orientation that waives the organization from typical claims that may arise. In exchange for this, the organization would provide volunteers with accidental death and dismemberment benefits that will respond in the event of an accident that occurred while a volunteer was performing services for the organization. This will allow the organization to provide the volunteer with the following protection while they are performing services for your organization:

1.  Accidental death or dismemberment designated benefit amount

2.  Medical expense benefit from an accident

In the event of a claim filed against the organization that results from harm or loss to a resident caused by a volunteer, the organization would be covered by its general liability policy. In addition, the volunteer may be also covered under your organization’s general liability policy. This is an important point to have clarity on and is one that your insurance broker should thoroughly explain to you. Volunteer screening, training and evaluations are effective risk management tools if these are documented.

As elder resident enrollment in nursing homes and assisted living communities continues to increase, volunteers are valuable assets to senior care organizations. In order to protect both the volunteers and the residents of the facilities, volunteers must be educated and trained on their job duties and how your organization’s insurance policies will respond.

Volunteer orientation, along with a thorough plan to address volunteer risk, can reduce exposure and improve care for residents, which in turn can protect the overall bottom line for a skilled nursing facility.

Erin O’Leary is a producer at Graham Company, one of the country’s largest insurance brokers.