OSHA: Your Business Partner In Success

How many of you reactively reach for your checkbook when you hear the phrase –‘we are from the government and are here to help’? Many small business owners feel exactly that when they hear that the government is making your business their business.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, plays a significant role in virtually all businesses–regardless of size. However, a small business receiving a notice that OSHA is coming to audit, or in a worst-case scenario-there is a serious accident or fatality at the place of business or job site, can spell doom due to significant fines including shutting the company down altogether. The published mission of OSHA is, “to assure the safety and health of American workers by setting and enforcing standards; providing training, outreach and education; establishing partnerships; and, encouraging continual improvement in workplace safety and health.”

A small business owner can look at the involvement of OSHA in their business operations two ways. They can be seen as a nuisance and the business can attempt to circumvent the process by jeopardizing their employee’s health and safety; or, the business can embrace the mission of OSHA making them a business partner. The success of the business rests on understanding that the best way to reduce workplace injuries, illness and fatalities is simply through prevention.

In the annual Workplace Safety Index issued by Liberty Mutual, the findings show:

In 2002, serious work-related injuries cost United States employers almost $1 billion dollars per week in payments to injured workers and their medical care providers.

Beyond the billion dollar losses, more importantly is the significant lost productivity that it represents. However, workplace safety is not just about money and lost productivity. As a small business owner, your employees become more than just an identification number. Remember that the employee’s children and spouses also play a large part in the success of your business. In reality, a small business is a family within a family. Therefore, a serious injury, illness or worse case scenario–a fatality–is not just a statistic that is read in the newspaper, but a major crisis on many levels for you and your employees. The business loses an employee, but the family loses a loved one and income when the employee becomes disabled and unable to work. In most cases, the employee is the sole or significant breadwinner and their disability or loss results in disastrous financial implications for the family. When businesses operate under a comprehensive safety and health program, incidents of injury and illness go down, insurance costs go down and worker compensation payments go down. The resulting increase in employee moral, productivity and company competitiveness translates into increased profits.

OSHA has developed a variety of tools (and in multiple languages) from partnership, consultation, compliance assistance, education and training and outreach, as well as plain language regulations to help the small business community not only comply with regulations, but assist in the development of programs that benefit the employee as well as the employer. From free on-site consultation, to interactive computer software, to technical information, to easily followed guides for specific OSHA standards. It is unfortunate that many small business owners are afraid to take advantage of these tools because they mistakenly believe that if they contact OSHA for help, it will trigger an inspection. OSHA has a long-established policy that information inquiries received by the agency regarding safety and health regulations or other subjects, shall not trigger an inspection. OSHA’s Non-Retaliation Policy reads as follows, “Contacts for information initiated by employers or their representatives shall not trigger an inspection, nor shall such employer inquiries protect them against regular inspections conducted pursuant to guidelines established by the agency…”

One very valuable program is OSHA’s Free On-Site Consultation designed to help small business employers provide a safe workplace for their employees. The program offers technical assistance to employers on hazard identification and correction, as well as demonstrates to employers how to maintain an effective safety and health management system. Assessments can encompass the entire operation or specific areas that the employer identifies. Some of the consultation process can include appraisal of all mechanical and environmental hazards, work practices, appraisal of the present job safety and health program (or the establishment of one), a written and verbal report as to the findings and agreements of the appraisal as well as training and assistance with implementation recommendations.

OSHA’s Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP) recognizes small business employers that provide an exemplary safety and health management system at the place of business or worksites. When a business qualifies for the SHARP program they are exempt from programmed OSHA inspections during the time their SHARP certification is in effect. According to OSHA’s web site, to participate in SHARP, a business must:

  • Request a consultation visit that involves a complete hazard identification survey;
  • Involve employees in the consultation process;
  • Correct all hazards identified by the consultant;
  • Implement and maintain a safety and health management system that, at a minimum, addresses OSHA’s 1989 Safety and Health Program Management Guidelines;
  • Lower the company’s Lost-Workday Injury and Illness rate (LWDII) and Total Recordable Case Rate (TRCR) below the national average; and
  • Agree to notify the state Consultation Project Office prior to making any changes in the working conditions or introducing new hazards into the workplace.
  • After a business satisfies all SHARP requirements, the Consultation Project Manager in the business’ state may recommend the worksite for final SHARP approval and certification. The state and OSHA will formally recognize the business or worksite at a SHARP awards ceremony.

If a business meets most, but not all, of the SHARP eligibility criteria and are committed to working toward full SHARP approval, the business may be recommended for an inspection deferral of up to 18 months if:

  • The business has had a complete hazard identification consultation visit at your worksite and you have corrected all hazards;
  • The business is in the process of implementing an effective safety and health management system; and
  • The business can meet all SHARP requirements during the deferral period.

As compliance assistance and specialists, OSHA maintains a website with compliance materials available to the small business owner. The site is found at www.osha.gov. This site also allows computer training based software, which addresses items such as hazard communication, asbestos, cadmium, confined spaces, fire safety and lead in construction. There are compliance specialists that respond to the needs of the small business community and coordinate various programs. These programs include seminars and workshops, developing and promotion cooperative programs with industry groups and the SBA, and coordinate OSHA’s training resources. These training opportunities can be industry specific through trade and industry groups, or there are several regional training and education centers across the country that provide basic and advanced courses in safety and health.

As another benefit to small business, OSHA has reduced recordkeeping requirements for small businesses with fewer than 10 employees. Did you know that as a small business you are exempt from most OSHA recordkeeping requirements for recording and reporting occupational injuries and illnesses? Did you also know that OSHA provides for penalty reductions for small businesses? A 60% penalty reduction may be applied if an employer has 25 or fewer employees, a 40% reduction if the company has 26-100 employees and a 20% reduction if the employer has 101-250 employees. Is your company missing out by not embracing the opportunities available?

As a business owner, if you are not taking advantage of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s support and vast programs specifically designed to assist the business community, you very well may just pull out your wallet and pay your share of that one billion dollars per week in hard costs. Do not forget about the other costs– beyond money–in the form of lost productivity, the bruised morale of your workers and the untold personal cost of having an employee seriously injured or killed with their family financially ruined. With just a little forethought, many of these can be minimized or avoided altogether.

On a final note, every safety and health program should be tailor made to fit each individual business by blending into its unique operations and culture. The best way to maintain a balance between management and employees is to keep everyone involved. A business owner can maintain a system that continually addresses workplace hazards and involve all employees in policymaking on safety and health issues on a regular basis. The business owner should then post the company’s written safety and health policy in a conspicuous place for all to see.

Make OSHA a business partner in the success of your business by understanding that the way to reduce workplace injuries, illness and fatalities is simply through prevention. When it comes to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, they are from the government and they are here to help you, not reach for your checkbook.