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An Overview of Workplace Safety

Filed under Office & HR.

Why worry about safety? Simply because workplace accidents can literally destroy your business.

Besides the incalculable cost of pain and grief, there are high monetary costs attached to workplace accidents. These costs can include the inability to meet your obligations to customers, wages paid to sick and disabled workers, wages paid to substitute employees, damaged equipment repair costs, insurance claims, workers' compensation, and administrative and recordkeeping costs.

In addition, the monetary penalties for failing to comply with federally mandated safety requirements alone could destroy your business. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's minimum penalty for willful violations of safety rules that could result in death or serious physical harm recently increased from $5,000 to $70,000. (OSHA is the federal agency that enforces federal safety requirements.)

Absent an accident, a small business owner isn't likely to be visited by federal health and safety inspectors very often, if at all. Unfortunately, if an accident does occur and you're found to be in violation of applicable safety rules, you may have to pay government fines and other costs. So, it's worthwhile to have a general understanding of the legal underpinning of the safety standards that apply to almost every employer.

Are you subject to OSHA? If you have employees, you are probably subject to OSHA. If you have none, you generally aren't covered, although in some cases businesses who use nonemployee workers such as independent contractors are still subject to OSHA.

As a practical matter, small employers (10 employees or less) are exempt from regularly scheduled inspections and from injury and illness reporting. This doesn't mean that you are free from other OSHA requirements, however.

A worker will be considered your employee under OSHA if you:

  1. are responsible for controlling the actions of the employee
  2. have the power to control the employee's actions
  3. are able to fire the employee or to modify the employment conditions

Although your safety obligations originate at the federal level, states have the right to substitute their own standards under a federally approved state plan. The standards under a state plan may differ from federal OSHA regulations, but must be at least as strict as the federal standards.

Complying with OSHA requirements. The heart of OSHA compliance is becoming aware of its published standards, which address specific workplace hazards. The standards are divided into four major categories (general industry, construction, maritime and agriculture) based on the type of work being performed.

There is also a general duty under OSHA to maintain a safe workplace, which covers all situations for which there are no published standards. Thus, you aren't off the hook merely because you complied with all the specific written standards that apply to you--you also have to be aware of safety hazards that come with new technology or unusual situations the government might not have thought of.

Recordkeeping requirements. OSHA requires every covered employer to comply with certain posting and recordkeeping requirements.

  • All employers must display a poster notifying employees of their rights under OSHA. You can obtain a copy of this poster from your nearest OSHA office. You must also post any Material Safety Data Sheets you receive from manufacturers or distributors of chemicals you use in the workplace.
  • Accident reporting requirements apply to all employers. If a workplace accident involves a fatality or the hospitalization of three or more employees, you must report it within eight hours to the nearest OSHA office, or by calling OSHA at 1-800-321-OSHA.
  • Businesses that have 10 or more employees and that are not exempt as "low hazard" businesses must maintain certain illness and injury records for each serious incident. These records are not filed with the government, but must be kept for five years following the year in which the incident occurred, and must be available to inspectors or employees. Low-hazard businesses exempt from this requirement are those in retail trade, finance, insurance, real estate or services; however, building materials and garden suppliers, general merchandise and food stores, hotels and lodging places, auto and miscellaneous repair services, amusement and recreation services, and medical services are not exempt.

Inspections and penalties. OSHA enforces occupational safety and health regulations by inspecting workplaces, issuing citations, and imposing monetary penalties for violations of OSHA safety and health standards. What can trigger an inspection of your business? The government's priorities for scheduling OSHA inspections are as follows:

  1. investigation of imminent dangers
  2. fatality and catastrophe investigation
  3. investigations of complaints, such as complaints made by employees
  4. programmed (regularly scheduled) inspections in "high hazard" industries. Businesses with 10 or fewer employees are exempt from these, so long as they have an occupational injury/lost workday rate lower than the national average, as published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Citations. If a workplace inspection reveals violations of safety and health regulations or of your general duty to provide a safe and healthful workplace, OSHA will issue you a citation. The citation will charge you with a particular violation, set a time for abatement or correction of the condition, notify you of proposed penalties, and inform you of the procedure for contesting the charges before the Review Commission, should you choose to do so.

Getting help. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration can provide helpful information and resources for you, designed to help you comply with OSHA requirements and create a safety program for your business.

In each state, there's an officially recognized agency that is part of the national consultation program funded by OSHA. Services carried out by these agencies include on-site consultation visits, as well as training of supervisors and employees and other assistance in developing safety and health programs. To locate the agency in your state, call your nearest OSHA office or your state department of labor. There are also private consultants who specialize in helping small businesses design safety programs that will ensure you're in compliance with OSHA. Your attorney may be able to direct you to one in your area.

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