Workplace Safety: What Small Businesses Need To Know
Workplace safety is the process of protecting your employees from work-related illness and injury. It is primarily monitored by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). While high-hazard industries like manufacturing may require safety officers, keeping your workers safe is one of the many functions of your human resources (HR) team. HR needs to know federal and state regulations and how to implement those safety protocols and ensure workplace safety for all employees, regardless of industry. This also helps your business avoid compliance fines and increased insurance costs.
Did You Know?
Congress established OSHA with the passage of the OSH Act in 1970. It sets a standard that companies must meet to prevent workers from getting injured at work. Contrary to popular belief, OSHA standards apply to more than just high-hazard industries like construction and manufacturing, and covers most private sector employers. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA implemented additional guidelines and requirements for some industries.
To ensure your small business takes the right steps, you can start with rules set out by OSHA. Businesses in certain industries and locations may have additional requirements.
OSHA is important to small businesses because it helps identify any safety hazards present in the workplace, along with any changes needed to keep workers safe. To understand what’s expected of your business, let’s review the requirements:
Most private businesses in the US must comply with OSHA, even those with just a single employee—unless that employee is you. So, any company with at least one employee is subject to OSHA rules, even if you’re not operating under a formal business entity.
However, employers with 10 employees or fewer are not required to keep records of workplace injuries or illnesses. If you fall into this category, it’s important to make clear that you are still subject to the workplace safety requirements. Once your employee level exceeds 10 employees, you’ll need to keep detailed records.
Each state’s safety requirements must at least meet the minimum OSHA standards. However, some states go above and beyond these, which is permissible under the OSH Act. Along with Puerto Rico, the 21 states that administer their own workplace safety programs are: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.
Most of these programs adopted OSHA’s requirements but changed their processes to allow for a state review board. Some of the states also adopted plans that apply to public sector employers, which OSHA doesn’t cover.
There are four states we need to examine more closely that have nuances that can make compliance more complicated.
California is a state that often has additional compliance requirements placed on employers, and workplace safety is no different. Officially called Cal/OSHA, the state’s plan generally follows federal requirements. However, the federal workplace safety guidelines have not updated their permissible exposure limits standards since the OSH Act was passed in 1970. California updates these standards regularly.
Another California change is related to work not covered under OSHA. Cal/OSHA covers employees working in high-rise window cleaning and jobs where heat illness is a concern, among other areas. It’s important if you have employees in California that you understand these differences and adjust your policies and procedures accordingly.
Michigan’s workplace safety program is called MIOSHA. While most of its rules mirror the federal program, MIOSHA also covers handling certain equipment not found in OSHA:
- Fire equipment
- Bakery equipment
- Powered platforms
This program also applies to public employers. The only exceptions under MIOSHA are employers under exclusive federal jurisdiction and those in the mining and domestic and household help industries.
Called Oregon OSHA, this plan includes public sector employers at both the state and local levels. It covers nearly every employer in the state, except:
- Independent contractors
- Sole proprietors
- Partnerships and corporations with no employees other than owners
- Corporate family farms that employ only family members
The Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act (WISHA) was the first state-enacted and OSHA-approved safety and health program. It covers nearly all employers in Washington, including local and state government employees.
WISHA does not cover:
- Maritime employers
- National parks
- Indian tribes
Under WISHA, some industries have additional standards beyond OSHA. If you operate in Washington, it’s a good idea to review this OSHA guide showing you all the areas under each industry. We’ll provide a few examples for each, but strongly encourage you to review the linked guide.
- General Industry: Exit routes and alarm systems, ventilation, portable power tools, logging and forestry, airborne contaminants, chemical agents, steam piping
- Construction: Sanitation, hazard communication, signaling and flaggers, material storage, slings, power tools, conveyors, demolition
- Agriculture: Vehicles and farm field equipment, lawnmowers, ladders, stairwells, exit routes, hand tools, electrical hazards, temporary worker housing
What if your small business has employees located in OSHA states and in a state like California that has its own, more stringent, workplace safety programs? Start with the minimum federal OSHA standards and apply those across the board for all of your workplace locations and employees. Then, review individual state requirements to ensure specific workplace locations meet the requirements of the state.
OSHA covers four broad categories of business industry:
- General industry
If your small business doesn’t fall into one of the broad categories above, you will fall into OSHA’s catchall category, the general duty clause. Under the general duty clause, all employers must comply with OSHA regulations, even if they don’t fit into one of the categories listed above.
Government employers, churches, and the self-employed are generally exempt from OSHA rules, along with companies that operate under a federal or state agency, like mining companies and nuclear power plants. These businesses have a full exemption—meaning they do not have to comply with OSHA regulations, including safety standards and record keeping requirements.
HR Responsibilities for Workplace Safety
Your HR department plays a key role in keeping your employees safe in their workplace. Apart from complying with OSHA standards, there are steps your HR team needs to take to ensure general workplace safety. This includes having the correct policies, procedures, training, and equipment and, for certain industries, assigning a safety officer.
A safety officer is an expert in safety rules and regulations, and they can be a valuable addition to your HR team, especially in states that have their own safety and health programs. While not generally a requirement under OSHA, having a safety officer on staff can give you more peace of mind that your company meets OSHA rules.
Regardless of the industry you’re in, you need to provide safety training to new hires and existing employees. If you operate in a small office environment, for example, you may only need to provide minimal safety training, like where you keep a first-aid kit, emergency exits in the building, and the location of safety equipment.
You also need to provide employees with safety training related to their jobs, even if you work in an office, such as training on effective posture while typing and getting up to take regular breaks.
OSHA recognizes five hazards that are the most common workplace injuries:
- Falls and falling objects: Employees can trip over loose cords, fall from ladders, trip on uneven surfaces, and slip on wet floors.
- Chemical exposure: Breathing toxic air and having chemicals absorbed through the skin cause millions of workplace injuries every year.
- Fire: Workplace fires are more common as people use candles at their desks but fire extinguisher training is rare and misuse leads to more damage than is necessary.
- Electrical: Mostly involving repair and maintenance work, electrical injuries often occur when live wires are not properly secured.
- Repetitive motion: Some tasks are linked with repetitive motions, which could result in long-term injuries. These can be prevented by giving adequate breaks and shifting work duties.
Safety training is even more crucial when you operate in a more hazardous industry. If your business is in construction or manufacturing, for example, you’ll need to provide your employees with training on how to use the safety equipment you provide them. You also need to explain why the safety equipment is required.
Be aware that you must provide safety training in a language your employees understand. So, make sure that if you regularly hire employees who speak Spanish that you have safety training available to them in their native language.
Ultimately, here’s how to sum up what your safety training should include:
- Every employee should be trained in the tasks, situations, and equipment necessary to safely do their job
- Training must be provided by a qualified person in a manner the employee understands (their native language)
- You must give employees training as often as is necessary
- You must document and keep records of each employee’s training
Compliance Tip: The first question an OSHA investigator will ask after a workplace incident is: Did the employee receive adequate training to do their job? Make sure you provide every employee enough training to answer that question affirmatively.
One of the best ways to ensure you answer that question above with a yes is to keep detailed records of the training you provide to every employee. You can have employees take tests after training to ensure they understand the material. Or, you can simply have them sign off on an acknowledgement form. Either way, get the employee’s signature and keep it with the training materials they received.
If you have more than 10 employees, you are also required to document any workplace injuries. OSHA mandates that you keep these records for at least five years. Any injury requiring more than simple first-aid must be documented.
Using Form 300, you must report these injuries or illnesses directly to OSHA. Not every injury must be reported, but generally, you should report the following:
- An employee death
- Occupational hearing loss
- Loss of consciousness
- Any employee with at least one day off work after a workplace incident
- Any employee who receives medical treatment beyond first aid after a workplace incident
Annually, you must complete Form 300A, which provides information about:
- Total number of workplace deaths
- Total number of injuries where employees missed days at work
- Total number of work days missed
- Total number of injuries and illnesses workers received
Record keeping requirements can be a challenge for small businesses, so OSHA allows for low-risk business exemptions. If your business is in a low-risk industry, you don’t need to meet OSHA’s record keeping requirements, unless you’re specifically asked to do so. Low-risk industries include:
- Retail stores
- Software publishers
- Financial companies
- Real estate agencies
- Insurance companies
You can find a full list of exemptions on OSHA’s website. Before assuming you’re exempt, review the list to ensure you don’t have to keep these records.
Compliance Tip: If you decide not to record a workplace injury, you can document your reasoning behind your decision. If the injury is an edge case, this is a good idea as it shows good faith and a thoughtful process, should OSHA take issue with your decision to not record.
Workplace Safety Equipment
Your business must provide employees a safe and hazard-free workplace. In certain industries, that may include providing workplace safety equipment or personal protective equipment. Especially in high-hazard industries, this equipment often includes items such as:
- Foot protection
- Special shoes
- Eye protection
- Hard hats
If your business is a retail establishment, you may not need to provide all of these items. But, if you have retail employees who unload shipments of new items, you may need to provide them with a back brace to wear while doing that part of their job.
Companies operating in high-hazard industries may need to provide substantial safety equipment. If you operate in construction, for example, you’ll need to give your employees hard hats, protective eyewear, gloves, and other protective equipment that helps them do their job effectively while also reducing the danger to them.
Ultimately, the safety equipment you need to provide will depend on the industry your business operates in and the specific needs of your employees. Keep in mind that some employees may require additional safety equipment because of the nature of their job.
Policies & Handbooks
While OSHA has no requirements for you to enact specific policies or provide a thorough handbook to your employees, you should. Your safety training should be a policy that’s included in your company handbook. The policy should include how often you provide training, the type of training, who provides the training, and your process for keeping the training records.
If your employees regularly handle hazardous materials, for example, you should have a policy establishing procedures for how employees should work around these materials. This policy serves to guide employees and provide your company firm footing for OSHA requirements. If an incident occurs, you’ll want to be able to point to specific workplace policies contained in your company handbook.
Penalties for OSHA violations are fierce. OSHA levies fines for four different types of violations and fines, each outlined here.
Any violation OSHA deems intentional
A violation an employer should have known would create an employee hazard and possible death
A violation that an employer should have known would create potential employee injuries less than death
Similar violations to past offenses
$5,000–$70,000 per incident
Up to $7,000 per incident
Up to $7,000 per incident
Up to $70,000 per repeated violation
Workplace Safety Tips
Ultimately, you can help foster a safe work environment by incorporating the following six steps into your policies:
- Conduct an annual risk audit: Review your policies and procedures annually to ensure they meet updated compliance requirements.
- Conduct new hire and ongoing training: Make sure you have proper new hire safety training and give thorough and regular safety training to all your employees.
- Provide safety equipment to every worker to help them do their job effectively: Determine what equipment is required for each person to do their job safely and make sure they have that equipment which can ultimately reduce injuries.
- Identify hazards and remove them, or provide safety equipment to make workers safer: Review workspaces for potential hazards and take appropriate action to remove them, or ensure that workers are well-equipped with safety gear in case they cannot be removed.
- Prepare for emergencies: Always have a plan that’s documented in your company handbook and readily available to all employees.
- Ensure your workers’ compensation policy meets your industry needs: In the event of a workplace accident, your workers’ compensation insurance will help you shoulder the financial burden so you need to make sure it provides adequate coverage.
OSHA’s requirements can seem overwhelming and exceedingly complex, especially in states that have their own requirements—but it is a must for employers to ensure their employees are working in a safe environment. Stay compliant with OSHA’s standards, along with other work safety practices, to avoid workplace injuries and reduce the likelihood of compliance fines.