Is your workplace safe for your employees? If one of your workers is injured on the job, your company could face substantial fines and penalties -- and even small businesses may be subject to federal safety regulations. No matter what size your business is, you need to know how laws about worker safety affect you.
Who Sets Workplace Safety Policies?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is the federal agency that works to make sure all U.S. employees enjoy safe working environments. OSHA enforces safety standards and helps businesses educate their workers about on-the-job safety and health issues.
Some states have also developed their own occupational safety and health programs. State programs must set standards that are at least as effective as the comparable federal standards, and in some cases even stricter. You can find a list of states with occupational safety and health programs here.
Depending on the industry in which you operate and the number of employees you have, your business may be exempt from complying with certain OSHA regulations. Or, if you are penalized, your fines may be reduced. To learn more about exemptions, read "OSHA Exemptions for Small Businesses."
Understanding OSHA Workplace Rules
What if your business does have to comply with OSHA regulations? Federal OSHA regulations are divided into four industry categories: construction, general industry, maritime, and agriculture. Each of these categories has its own particular safety and health standards. But no matter what category your business falls into, there are some standards all businesses must meet:
- Protective equipment: If employees need safety gear such as goggles, gloves, or helmets, this equipment has to be provided to them free of charge.
- Hazard communication: If you manufacture or import hazardous materials, your business will be evaluated regularly, and you need to inform employees of the risks involved.
- Access to medical and exposure records: You must give all employees access to records regarding their exposure to risks.
- Inspection: Any business that must comply with OSHA regulations is subject to inspection by compliance officers from both federal and state OSHA offices.
How can you be sure your small business is in compliance with all the regulations? OSHA offers lots of assistance:
- Area offices of OSHA have compliance assistance specialists who can advise you on what you need to do, and help you find the resources you need to comply with regulations.
- OSHA has an On-site Consultation Program in every state where a consultant will come out and work with you on-site, free of charge. The confidential consultations will help you pinpoint risks in the workplace and set up health and safety programs. Workplaces in hazardous industries get priority in this program.
- If you have Spanish-speaking workers and need to make sure they understand safety information, OSHA's Hispanic/English-as-a-second-language coordinators will help you provide training, information, and guidance to these employees.
- OSHA also provides posters to display in your workplace that inform employees about their rights. You are required by law to place these posters prominently in your workplace; for more about this, read "Required Workplace Posters."
You can find out more about all of the programs OSHA offers to help small business at the small business tab on OSHA's website. Like OSHA, most state occupational safety and health programs provide assistance, training, and education to help businesses comply with their regulations. Check with your state's occupational safety and health program to see what assistance is available.
Keeping employees safe doesn't benefit just them -- it also benefits your business by reducing downtime, keeping productivity and morale high, and cutting workers' compensation costs. Do what you need to do to provide a safe and healthy workplace for your team.