Published March 22, 1999

Safety on the Job: Employee Safety in the Workplace

Every business, regardless of its size, must provide its employees with safe working conditions. And considering the range of potential hazards -- from asbestos to slippery stairs to excessive noise -- that can be difficult for a small business. Fortunately, the government agency that regulates workplace safety also provides a wealth of resources to help small businesses comply with their regulations.

Standards and rules for safe working conditions, tools, equipment, facilities and processes are set by the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration [http://www.osha.gov/]. OSHA standards apply to every private employer with one or more employees, except for those in industries covered by other federal job safety legislation. And these standards have accomplished their purpose; in its first 26 years, OSHA reduced the workplace death rate by half. Today, roughly 93 million employees across the country are protected by state and federal OSHA programs.

Even with adequate safety measures, accidents do happen. For that reason, all businesses regulated by OSHA must establish formal procedures to safeguard their employees in case of an emergency. Businesses with more than 10 employees must prepare a written emergency action plan; smaller ones can communicate their plans orally to their employees. An emergency action plan, according to OSHA, should include such details as how to report emergencies, how to evacuate the building and who is in charge of search and rescue duties. OSHA also recommends that companies appoint an emergency response coordinator to oversee the program (and a backup in case).

In order to be effective, an emergency action plan requires both the commitment of top managers and the participation of all company employees. The plan should be reviewed and updated periodically, and random drills should be conducted at least once a year.

OSHA conducts workplace inspections to ensure that its standards are being met. If an OSHA compliance officer discovers hazards during an inspection, the officer may issue the employer a citation listing the alleged violations. OSHA inspectors may also propose penalties and abatement periods.

Employers who want help in recognizing and correcting hazards and improving their health and safety programs can take advantage of a free consultation service, which is funded mostly by OSHA and delivered by state governments using well-trained professional staff. A booklet available through the OSHA Web site, "Consultation Services for the Employer," contains more information about the service.

OSHA offers a number of publications designed to help small businesses comply with federal safety requirements. Its Small Business Safety Management Series includes such titles as "The OSHA Handbook for Small Businesses" and "Assessing the Need For Personal Protective Equipment: A Guide for Small Business Employers." Small business owners can also download a flyer from the OSHA Web site that provides an overview of the agency's services. A variety of OSHA publications can be ordered either through the agency's Web site or by writing the Superintendent of Documents at the Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402-9325.