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Creating a safe environment for one and all

Nonprofits are unique in the wide range of their stakeholders — staff members, program participants, clients, beneficiaries, board members and volunteers. The challenge is to create a safe environment for all of them.

Logically, the costs of an unsafe workplace are high, including:

  • Higher health insurance and workers' compensation expenses
  • Loss of services and programs due to staff and volunteer injuries
  • Stress on staff members who take over the work load of injured colleagues
  • Reduced morale
  • Staff turnover

Thankfully, you can take immediate steps to prevent such results.

Do a risk assessment

Start by looking at your workplace through the lens of safety. Inspect work stations and public areas for physical risks such as:

  • Hazards from toxic, flammable and explosive chemicals
  • Frayed wires, ungrounded outlets and other electrical hazards
  • Uneven surfaces, deteriorating stairs and other conditions that could lead to falls
  • Temperature extremes that could lead to heat stress or hypothermia
  • Lack of visibility due to inadequate lighting or obstructed sight lines
  • Storage areas with heavy objects that could fall from shelves
  • Sources of sustained noise that could lead to hearing damage

Next, assess behavioral risks. Make a comprehensive list of volunteer and staff activities. Ask two questions: What do they do? And what could go wrong? For example, volunteer drivers could have traffic accidents. Staff members who work in nursing homes could injure themselves while lifting clients.

For additional help in the U.S., consider an on-site inspection by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). These are confidential and free to small and medium-sized employers.

Adopt safety policies

Give your staff and volunteers specific guidance for staying safe. In the U.S., start by reviewing OSHA regulations and signing up for the agency's email newsletter. In the U.K., look to Health and Safety Executive for guidance. Also check out sample safety policies, such as this one from the Nonprofit Risk Management Center.

In addition, check the requirements of your workers' compensation insurance. Most policies require organizations to report work-related accidents and injuries within a certain time period. Failure to do so may lead to loss of coverage.

After creating safety policies, take steps to implement them:

  • Eliminate physical hazards. Follow up on your risk assessment — for instance, by replacing burned out lights and repairing uneven surfaces.
  • Offer safety training. Base this instruction on the specifics of your programs and services. If your organization serves people who have hepatitis, for example, train staff members and volunteers on infection prevention.
  • Review insurance coverage. Contact an agent who specializes in liability policies for nonprofits.
  • Create a reporting system. Develop a simple procedure that allows staff and volunteers to report hazards, injuries, illnesses and incidents — including close calls — without fear of retaliation.
  • Prepare for emergencies. Conduct fire drills and create an evacuation plan.
  • Update policies. Do a new risk assessment each time you create new programs or services.
  • Investigate accidents and injuries. Promptly determine — and resolve — underlying causes.
  • Measure results. Look for indicators of improved safety, such as reductions in accidents, sick days, medical expenses, workers' compensation premiums and work hours lost to injuries.

Be sure to involve the board in these efforts, too. After all, workplace safety is a top-down operation that should be instilled by the board as part of the workplace culture.

Prevent violence and harassment

Many people in the nonprofit community find themselves working in conditions linked to an increased risk of violence. For example, staff and volunteers may provide services to people facing challenging situations or in areas with high crime rates. Harassment in any form — verbal abuse, inappropriate touching, assaults — is a related risk.

To reduce the risk of such hazards:

  • Keep basic safety in mind. Look for office space in buildings with security features such as lighted parking lots, security cameras, alarm systems and employee areas that are separate from public areas. Schedule staff and volunteer hours so that no one works alone. Require visitors to be identified and then "buzzed" in. Use a visitor's log to document when visitors enter and leave the building.
  • Create a zero-tolerance policy for harassment. Include a specific list of behaviors that aren't tolerated. Immediately discipline any staff members or volunteers who are guilty of name calling, threats, or racial or ethnic slurs.
  • Be alert to weapons. Inspect work areas for objects that could be used as weapons and remove as many of them as possible.
  • Make it easy to report threats and violent incidents. If staff members or volunteers complain about being harassed, ask them to keep detailed records about the incidents.
  • Train staff members and volunteers in self-defense. Also consider techniques such as Verbal Judo, which prevents arguments from escalating out of control.
  • Encourage peaceful conflict resolution. Connect with neighborhood associations and police departments in the areas where you offer programs and services. Acknowledge staff and volunteers who excel at conflict resolution.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



Free Management Library: Employee wellness: Preventing violence in the workplace

Free Management Library: Employee wellness: Safety in the workplace

Nonprofit Risk Management Center: Workplace safety is no accident: An employer's online toolkit to protect employees and volunteers (2005)

Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Workplace violence



Writer and editor fascinated by knowledge management, behavior change and technology for nonprofits