Most small business owners consider the rules issued by OSHA (the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration) to be primarily relevant to certain kinds of industries, or to larger companies. Since most of the press coverage surrounding OSHA typically addresses cases involving industrial accidents at facilities such as energy plants, factories, assembly plants, construction sites and other high-risk environments, it’s easy to assume that these issues represent the extent of OSHA’s role in the workplace.
However, OSHA is actually tasked with protecting employee safety and health in all private employer workplaces. In addition, most OSHA requirements apply even to small businesses, with the most notable exception being that firms that have 10 employees or less are partially exempt from the requirement to maintain OSHA injury and illness records (unless otherwise notified by OSHA or unless the workplace is covered under other OSHA regulations that still require it). The only other general exceptions to OSHA regulation are public sector employees, self-employed persons, family members working on their own farm (in most cases), and workers operating at facilities whose occupational safety is regulated by a different federal agency.
OSHA regulations fall into four overall categories: general industry, construction, maritime and agriculture. For most small businesses, the key requirements to consider are those found under the “general industry” category. With that in mind, here are seven common OSHA requirement for general industry that small businesses should be aware of and plan to proactively address:
1. Mark and manage hazardous materials.
If your small business maintains any hazardous materials on-site, OSHA requires you to clearly label, property protect and safely maintain those items. Remember that hazardous materials are not always obvious —- they’re not always huge drums of glowing chemicals. They could also include cleaning solutions, glues, paints, pesticides, oil and gas products, disinfectants and any caustic substances. Also important to consider are gases, vapors and fumes such as those from welding, solvent exposure, propane or acetylene. These items could be sitting in break rooms, storage closets, or in the corner of someone’s workstation. But no matter where they are stored or in what qualities they are being held, they still represent hazards that must be addressed.
2. Maintain an effective fire and emergency plan.
Did you know that OSHA requires businesses (including small businesses) to create and maintain an effective fire and emergency plan? This plan should instruct employees on items such as how to identify and report an emergency, fire or hazardous condition; how to safely evacuate the workplace; and what to do to notify proper responders in each kind of emergency situation.
In addition, OSHA further reiterates certain priorities that are also generally covered by local fire codes — such as the presence of clearly-marked emergency exits, the need for employees to be able to access the fire and emergency plan easily at the workplace, and the imperative to keep emergency exits and pathways free of obstructions. Also, while fire extinguishers are not OSHA-mandated (their presence is either voluntary or may be required by local fire codes), OSHA does stipulate that if fire extinguishers or other such devices are present, then employees must be effectively trained in their use.
3. Prepare to deliver appropriate first aid.
OSHA also wants your employees to be able to receive appropriate first aid support at the workplace. First aid supplies must be present and they must be maintained properly and kept up-to-date and appropriately stocked. In some cases, a business located in a highly remote location may be required to maintain on-site medical personnel or contract to ensure that rapid access to medical support is made available.
In addition, the first aid kit or supplies must include appropriate specific items related to known hazards of the workplace. For example, if a workplace involves regular risk of burns (such as a welding shop or an industrial kitchen), then the first aid kit or supply closet must be so-equipped to address these risks.
4. Avoid slips and falls.
Walking surfaces represent one of the greatest risks of injury across workplaces, accounting for approximately 15% of all workplace injuries and accidental deaths. Falls on slippery floors, tripping on uneven steps, and losing one’s grip on a poorly-maintained stair rail are all examples of risks that OSHA wants employers to proactively mitigate. This means keeping floors and steps clean and dry; replacing worn or uneven step risers; maintaining rails and ladders properly; and ensuring that walking, climbing and other pedestrian hazards are clearly marked where appropriate.
In addition, smart employers are establishing ’spill stations’ and other proactive response procedures to ensure that spills are rapidly cleaned up, and that wet surfaces or dangerous walking hazards are clearly marked or roped off, as soon as they are identified.
5. Keep proper records and maintain posted notices.
Every OSHA-covered business is obligated to also follow specific requirements pertaining to record keeping and posting. While some small businesses may be exempt from selected OSHA record keeping requirements, nearly all small businesses with more than ten employees are required to use the OSHA Log of Work-Related Injuries to to capture and record every significant occupational illness or injury.
In addition, the OSHA “Job Safety & Health: It’s the Law” poster is required to be posted in workplaces across the board, because it spells out the legal requirements and standards that employers are held to while also addressing the occupational safety and health rights of employees.
6. Be aware of other common safety priorities.
OSHA regulations often impact other safety considerations that small business owners might fail to consider. For example, OSHA maintains regulations for safety in areas such as scaffolding, respiratory protection and electrical wiring. These standards could impact even a very small enterprise such as a summer lawn mowing business, or a small repair shop. Know the regulations as they apply to your business, both to protect your employees, and to protect yourself.
7. Take two smart steps toward successful OSHA compliance.
While OSHA regulations can seem overwhelming, the fact is that they exist to serve an essential purpose of protecting your employees and helping you to maintain a safe workplace for yourself and your staff. With that in mind, consider taking two smart steps on your OSHA compliance journey.
First, take a moment and download the OSHA Small Business Handbook from the official OSHA website. This 52-page guide covers key priorities including how to build a four-point workplace safety plan; what to know about key OSHA regulations; and how you can self-inspect your workplace to check your own occupational safety status and compliance.
Second, consider utilizing OSHA’s free On-Site Consultation Program. This program specifically provides small business owners with access to free and confidential advisory support. These services are provided outside of the OSHA enforcement process and will not result in citations or penalties. Consultants in the program typically hail from state agencies or universities and work with employers to identify workplace hazards, provide advice for compliance with OSHA standards, and assist in establishing and improving safety and health programs.
Understanding how your small business workplace can be made safer while also adhering to OSHA requirements are essential priorities for every growing business. Start today on this journey to create a safer, stronger and healthier working environment for your employees.