Small Business Safety: Climbing Higher

For small businesses seeking to take their EHS program to new heights, there are plenty of low-cost (and no-cost) resources.

In today's global economy, safety consultant Jonathan Klane of Fairfield, Maine, has found that most business operations have been "downsized to a lean and mean state." That's especially true, Klane says, for smaller businesses.

"The person running the operation – be it a small-plant manager or the owner of a store or company – is absolutely doing everything," Klane says. "Sales, marketing, R&D, manufacturing, billing – they're just trying to cover so many bases."

With time, manpower and resources often in short supply, small-business owners sometimes push safety to the back burner. Delving into the Code of Federal Regulations to fully understand their environmental, health and safety requirements becomes something to do on a rainy day – when they're not putting out fires and dealing with the day-to-day demands of running a business.

Quin Cheatham, deputy commissioner of INSafe – a division of the Indiana Department of Labor that offers free consultation services, training and other resources to Indiana small businesses – is sympathetic, particularly because she knows that many small businesses "don't always have the financial resources to hire someone specific to occupational safety and health."

"A lot of times you'll see a human resource director or someone in upper management wearing several different hats," Cheatham says. "They not only do health benefits but they also have to worry about being OSHA compliant or they're also doing ISO certification for the environmental and efficiency processes."

While small businesses clearly face some unique challenges when it comes to implementing an EHS program, there's an urban legend that EHS compliance – and assistance with EHS compliance – is a luxury that small businesses can't afford.

Klane, however, counters that services such as hazard assessments, training and assistance with implementing an EHS program "are readily available."

"There are plenty of people out there who can offer those services at low to no cost," Klane says. "All you have to do is look or ask."

While Cheatham wholeheartedly agrees, she notes that "a lot of the people in the position of taking care of health and safety issues in small businesses are simply overwhelmed and are not aware of what is available to them."

"I see very few employers or industries that are purposely putting their employees in danger," Cheatham says. "Most of the time, I think they don't have the tools or don't know about the tools that are available to them, such as the INSafe program."

Free Consultation

As established by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, each state government provides free consultative services for private employers. These services are delivered through state departments of labor, workers' compensation bureaus, OSHA programs, universities and safety and health agencies such as INSafe.

Among the services provided in OSHA's consultation program – which is geared primarily for smaller businesses – a consultant will visit the work site and conduct an on©site hazard assessment. If a problem or violation exists, the consultant will offer abatement recommendations and even provide employee training as well as assistance with implementing the recommendations.

The objective of OSHA's consultation program is to help employers improve their occupational safety and health management systems, and the agency makes it clear that an on©site consultation will not result in OSHA issuing citations or proposing penalties for safety violations.

"We're completely separate from OSHA," Cheatham emphasizes. "When you're under our consultation, you cannot be randomly inspected, and unless there's an imminent-danger situation or there's an accident during [the consultation], OSHA is not called in."

In certain situations in which the consultant observes what OSHA considers a serious violation, the employer and the consultant "are required to develop and agree to a reasonable plan and schedule to eliminate or control that hazard," according to OSHA. In rare cases, a consultant discovers a hazard that poses imminent danger and that requires the employer to take immediate action to abate it.

Regardless, participation in the consultation program would trigger OSHA enforcement action only if the employer failed to eliminate or control a serious or imminent©danger hazard according to the plan and schedule developed by the employer and the consultant.

In Cheatham's experience, many of the hazards discovered during on-site consultations are "very, very simple and are fixed right away." Other hazards, Cheatham explains, might require several months to remedy. Regardless of the severity of the hazard, consultants are "giving a helping hand" throughout the work site walk©through.

"We teach along the way," Cheatham says. "We explain why it needs to be fixed and how it can be fixed, or why we're asking for something to change. So it's not just a consultant pointing at something and saying, "Do it this way." There's an explanation involved and we're helping all along the way."

Free Training and More

In addition to administering OSHA's consultation program, state agencies such as INSafe typically offer free safety training and other services to employers. INSafe consultants, for example, offers training seminars throughout the state on topics such as accident investigation, electrical safety, hazard recognition, powered industrial trucks and lockout/tagout safety. The agency also offers OSHA voluntary compliance 10-hour and 30-hour training for general industry and construction.

As with all of the services provided by INSafe, Cheatham points out, courses are free and include all pertinent materials.

"We provide each participant with the Standards Book and an OSHA guide for supervisors that break the standards down even further for each of the respective industries," Cheatham says of the OSHA 10-hour and 30-hour training courses. She adds that after most INSafe training seminars, instructors are willing to e©mail or provide copies of their PowerPoint presentations.

INSafe offers free reference materials through its office in Indianapolis as well as on its Web site. Free online publications that are specific to Indiana businesses include a sample written program for bloodborne pathogen exposure control; a sample written program for hazard communication; a guide to creating a respiratory protection program; and lists of Indiana OSHA's top 25 violations.

INSafe also provides an invaluable resource to small businesses: answers, via phone or e-mail, to their questions about occupational safety and health.

"I think a lot of times when people have questions, they may have the industry standard book in their office, but they want a real person to talk to about the intricacies of the standard," Cheatham says. "They want that outlet to be able to ask, 'Well, what's the intent of the standard? What does it really mean to me? Break it down into layman's terms.' Because, again, with small businesses you have people in charge of safety who are not necessarily trained in occupational safety and health and may not have the background; they may be the human resources manager. So having the ability to call our office and get a clear and concise explanation of a standard is very important."

Get Creative

Klane explains that a little creativity can go a long way for small businesses seeking help with their EHS programs.

For example, Klane notes that some workers' compensation insurance carriers employ loss control specialists who provide free, on©site hazard assessments and offer recommendations on ways to control workplace hazards. Often, these specialists also provide safety training, "especially for small, mom-and-pop operations where they might only have two or three employees.

"That's clearly another great low- to no-cost, easy-access option," Klane says.

Klane, who is the current president of the American Society of Safety Engineers' (ASSE) Maine chapter, also suggests that small businesses contact their local chapter of ASSE or the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), as some chapters are willing to provide pro bono services to small businesses. Klane, however, adds that chapters sometimes are unable to provide pro bono services due to legal liability concerns. In those situations, Klane advises small businesses to ask the local ASSE or AIHA chapter for referrals to members who provide consulting services, as some consultants will provide some pro bono services to small businesses.

Another way for small businesses to learn safety strategies – free of charge – is to allow ASSE members to take "technical tours" of their work sites. The only investment required is the time needed to conduct the tours.

"Often there's quite a bit of interchange between the safety and health professionals taking the tour and the person giving it," Klane says. " ... While it's not a formal procedure, you have a dozen or so safety and health professionals from the local chapter visiting your facility. That's quite a bit of expertise that small business could make use of."

Klane also suggests attending conferences hosted by local ASSE chapters and similar organizations. These events typically are "quite affordable" and offer opportunities to learn from and network with industry professionals, experts and vendors.

In addition to tapping into the resources of local ASSE and AIHA chapters, Klane suggests becoming an active member of local, state or national trade organizations (such as the Associated General Contractors of America or the Automotive Service Association). These organizations can be valuable resources for safety strategies and other best practices.

"Small businesses are not always really tied in within their own industries," Klane says. "That's why joining a local or national association that deals with their specific industries is a good option."

Ignoring Safety: Not Free

While small businesses often can obtain safety consultation, training and materials without paying a dime, neglecting workplace safety and health usually comes with a steep price tag.

"It's the cost of a back injury, the cost of a mangled hand, the cost of lungs that have developed chemical asthma or some other condition based on exposure to workplace hazards," Klane says.

Klane has found that even though most small©business owners are "sincere" in their desire to keep their employees safe and healthy, they're not always convinced that there's a strong business case for investing in an EHS program. For employers who feel the need to "look at the numbers" before making an investment in safety, Klane suggests talking to their workers' compensation carriers and asking them to "educate me on how my costs will go up if X, Y or Z happens."

Employers also can turn to "Making the Business Case for Safety and Health," an OSHA Web page located at http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/products/topics/businesscase/index.html. The Web page, which the agency launched in 2006, includes case studies, white papers and tools that demonstrate how investing in workplace safety and health can help an employer save money and improve business.

According to the OSHA Web page, employers incur direct costs and indirect costs as a result of workplace injuries and illnesses.
"Direct costs include workers' compensation payments, medical expenses and costs for legal services," OSHA says. "Examples of indirect costs include training replacement employees, accident investigation and implementation of corrective measures, lost productivity, repairs of damaged equipment and property and costs associated with lower employee morale and absenteeism."

OSHA's Web page points to the 2005 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, which estimates that employers in 2003 spent $50.8 billion on wage payments and medical for workers hurt on the job. The index also estimates that employers pay almost $1 billion per week to injured employees and their medical care providers.

If these types of numbers aren't enough to demonstrate that it pays to invest in safety, small businesses should visit http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/smallbusiness/consult.html to read some of the success stories from OSHA's Safety and Health Achievement and Recognition Program (SHARP). (For more on SHARP, read "OSHA and Small Businesses: A Winning Combination.)

Among those is the story of LaJunta, Colo.-based DeBourgh Manufacturing Co., a custom athletic, corridor and industrial wardrobe locker manufacturer. DeBourgh over the past 8 years has been working with OSHA consultants to earn and maintain SHARP certification, and as a result of those efforts, DeBourgh not only has earned five SHARP certificates but also has experienced drastic reductions in its injury rates and workers' compensation premiums. (For more on DeBourgh, read "One SHARP Company.")

"Back in 2005, we had budgeted $100,000 just for workers' comp premiums, and this year our workers' comp premiums are going to be about $47,000," DeBourgh President Bill Dutro explains. "You can really make a huge impact on your bottom line if you take safety and health seriously."

Sidebar: Big ideas, Small Costs

  • Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CHMM, CET, founder of Fairfield, Maine©based Klane's Education Information Training Hub (KEITH), offers these suggestions for small businesses seeking safety advice, resources and strategies.
  • Ask your workers' compensation provider to perform a walk-through assessment of your work site to look for hazards and OSHA violations. Ask about any free training they can provide. They're usually happy to help.
  • Contact your state consultation service to request on-site hazard assessments, training, education and other services. A list of the agency or university responsible for providing these services in each state is available at http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/smallbusiness/consutl_directory.html.
  • Contact the local chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) or the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA). Sometimes chapters are willing to provide pro bono services to small businesses.
  • Look for and attend smaller local conferences presented by ASSE, AIHA and similar organizations. They typically include various educational presentations by professionals and exhibitors. These events tend to be affordable.
  • Get involved in your industry's professional associations. These associations often will have technical speakers come to meetings, during which members obtain answers to many of their questions.
  • Partner with other similar workplaces. Other employers might have dealt with the same safety and health issues that you are facing and can share best practices. You also might be able to procure services as a group and get a volume discount by doing so.
  • Contact your local SCORE office. The Service Corps of Retired Executives – SCORE – often can team you up with a retired business leader who has experience with safety and health and OSHA issues.
  • Visit OSHA's Web site. OSHA's site, at http://www.osha.gov, has many resources for small businesses.
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