October 1, 2012
Small business and obstacles to workplace safety
By Ellis Brasch
Among the advantages of owning and running a small business – let’s say one that employs 14.6 people, the statistical average for an Oregon firm – is the owner’s relative freedom to decide how the business will prosper.
What role should workplace safety play in the owner’s decisions? In a perfect world, the business owner would assess the hazards at the workplace then develop policies and procedures to prevent the hazards. Business owners in high-hazard industries – such as construction – would emphasize workplace safety more than a small business designing website applications.
Small business owners in high-hazard industries should emphasize workplace safety in their business decisions and many do. But that’s not always the case. Why? Attitudes of employers (and employees) about safety are an important reason. Often, such attitudes are shaped by beliefs that may seem reasonable at first, but don’t always hold up under scrutiny – and those attitudes can become obstacles to safer workplaces. How do we know when attitudes become obstacles to safety? Sometimes it’s just a matter of listening to what people say. Obstacles to workplace safety are often expressed in offhand comments such as the following:
"Being safe on the job is just a matter of applying common sense …"
The inference is that common sense is a kind of acquired knowledge and that workers who use common sense on the job will not get in harm’s way. The problem is that common sense has about as much substance as hot air in a balloon. The phrase has a sort of glib sensibility about it and it rolls off the tongue nicely, but applying common sense will not make workplaces safe.
What will make a workplace safe is an effective safety and health program. All effective safety and health programs include management leadership, hazard identification and control, training, and employee participation.
"It’s too expensive — It takes too long to install …"
Time and money are precious resources, especially for small-business owners who must manage all aspects of their business. But narrow profit margins and scarce resources are also reasons cited by some small-business owners for cutting corners when it comes to safety. It’s not that these employers aren’t concerned about safety; rather, they underestimate the costs of failing to invest in safety.
Preventing injuries begins to make sense when one considers the cost of an average workers’ compensation claim: $23,000 for the private sector (in 2010). And employers who want to keep their workers’ compensation costs down will need to be even more vigilant about loss control. That’s because, under the new rating plan from the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI), employers’ primary losses – the most expensive costs in a claim – are doubling from the current cap of $5,000 to $10,000 in 2013, and going up to $15,000 by 2015.
"It takes a full-time safety person to find and understand the rules …"
For some small-business owners, the path to compliance is a journey into uncharted territory prefaced by a signpost that reads, "Here be dragons." Finding safety and health information on the Web isn’t difficult, but finding safety requirements that apply to your workplace is still challenging. And then, there’s the task of understanding the requirements and keeping current on new rules.
But these aren’t reasons to give up. Employers who don’t have the resources to employ a full-time safety professional do have the option of borrowing one. A consultant from their workers’ compensation insurance carrier can evaluate their workplace for hazards and help them comply with the relevant safety and health rules. Oregon OSHA also has consultants who can help. There’s no charge for the services but the employer must request them.
"Taking risks is part of the job - Don’t rock the boat …"
Employees who take risks at the expense of safety aren’t likely to be disciplined by an employer who thinks that taking risks is part of the job. When employers don’t require their employees to follow job-related safety procedures, their employees will continue business as usual. Fear also becomes a barrier to safety when employees avoid reporting about real workplace hazards because doing so might "upset the boss" and get them fired. Employers who aren’t committed to maintaining a safe workplace should not be surprised that their employees aren’t either.
On the other hand, when employees believe their employers are committed to safety and take the issue seriously, they will do so, too.