Responding to Injuries at Church

What to do when employees or volunteers get hurt.

A pastor falls off a ladder while hanging a banner. A volunteer trips while playing with second-graders in the kids ministry. A staff member gets injured during an on-site church activity.

Injuries are surprisingly common at churches. Responding quickly to them can help get an injured staff member or volunteer back on the road to recovery quickly, says atttorney John A. Anthony, whose clients include churches, ministries, healthcare businesses, and physician practices. We talked with attorney Anthony about how churches can respond to injuries and how they can prepare ahead of time.

What should a church do when someone is injured?

The first step is to take every injury seriously. You’d be shocked at how often someone says they’re fine when an accident happens at church. And then it turns out they were injured and need to file a workers’ compensation or liability claim.

When an accident happens, the injured person should be checked out by a medical professional. Sometimes a church will have a doctor as part of the congregation who volunteers to help out, but if in doubt, always call 911.

Are there safety rules churches need to follow?

One thing churches need to be aware of is that OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] rules apply to churches with one or more employees in secular positions.

Churches should have safety policies in place—ones that cover how employees and volunteers do their work—to make sure they are complying with OSHA and state law. And they should report any workplace injuries right away—both to their insurance company and to OSHA. According to the OSHA website:

Employers do not have to report an event [to OSHA] if it: Resulted from a motor vehicle accident on a public street or highway (except in a construction work zone); Occurred on a commercial or public transportation system, such as airplane or bus; Involved hospitalization for diagnostic testing or observation only.

With that said, I must encourage churches to check with their state’s OSHA for applicable rules.

If an employee is injured, they’re often covered by workers’ compensation. Volunteers, on the other hand, are usually not, though their injuries may be covered by other church insurance. Are there times when churches blur the lines between a volunteer and an employee?

Yes, churches often blur those lines. Sometimes they will ask an employee—who works 40 hours during the week—to also volunteer on Sundays. Even if that staff member thinks they are volunteering, they may still be considered an employee.

Churches can also blur the lines if they begin to pay volunteers. If you start giving volunteers cash or a cash equivalent, they may end up being considered an employee.

Let’s talk about the “right of control” or “the principle” test when it comes to injuries, which Richard Hammar discusses. If the employer “controls” the worker, then the employer is responsible for an employee’s injuries, right?

The [right] of control really shows the difference between an independent contractor and employer. In most cases, you’d want to have a written agreement with someone who does independent contract work for the church. That makes it clear they are responsible for their own workers’ compensation.

Some of the questions that come into play include:

  • Does the employer control the work they do?
  • Does the employer supply the tools a worker uses?
  • Does the employer provide training?

If the answers to those questions happen to be yes, then an independent contractor might really be an employee. For them to be an independent contractor, you’d want them to supply their own tools and training, for example.

What’s the biggest misconception churches have about workers’ compensation?

The biggest misconception is that churches think workers’ compensation doesn’t apply to them. They think if they give someone a 1099—the tax form for independent contractors—then they aren’t liable. That’s not always the case. They really should have an agreement saying that the contractor will get their own insurance.

And some states allow churches to opt out of having workers’ compensation. So churches think if they do that, they are off the hook. But they are still responsible for what happens on their property and to their employees.

For more on this topic, see the article “Workers’ Compensation: Who Is and Isn’t Covered?

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