Safety at small businesses

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Several studies in the past have provided evidence that small establishments have higher death or injury rates than larger establishments. Some experts have attributed these high rates to traffic fatalities, but a 2006 study from the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, CA-based research institution, exempted highway motor vehicle crashes, as well as assaults and the construction industry, in some estimates.

For the study, researchers examined fatality rates and business size over a 10-year period. But instead of only examining small establishments, the researchers differentiated between small businesses with a single location and small establishments that may be part of a firm with multiple locations.

The end result was unexpected.

“What we found was, yes, it really is true that small establishments tend to have higher fatality rates than bigger ones in the same industry,” said John Mendeloff, study author and director of the Pittsburgh-based RAND Center for Health and Safety in the Workplace. “We also expected to find that with small, single-establishment firms. But that wasn’t true.”

Although the study found small, single-location businesses had a higher fatality rate than larger single-location establishments, the small, single-location establishment was safer than a similarly sized worksite that was part of a larger firm.

In manufacturing, for example, a firm with a single location with fewer than 20 employees had a rate of 3.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers during the 10-year research period. But an establishment with fewer than 20 workers that was part of a larger firm of 20-50 employees had a rate more than 6 times higher – 21.7. This pattern continued for all establishment sizes of fewer than 100 employees. With more than 100 employees, the pattern reversed and fatality rates shrank as firm size grew.

Mendeloff suggested that one reason small, single-facility establishments are safer is the single-facility sites could be more likely to have their owner on the shop floor.

That conclusion is one that Mike Fredrich agreed with. Fredrich is the president and owner of MCM Composites, a single-facility manufacturer based in Manitowoc, WI, that employs about 60 workers. “I know every one of them,” he said of his employees. “I know their first names and last names and how many kids they have. If one of them was seriously injured, it’s like having someone in the family being seriously injured. You just take it personally.”

For a small firm that may have multiple locations, resources can thin out and it can be harder to ensure safety at each worksite. Ryan Spies is the sole safety manager for Rock Road Companies, an asphalt company based in Janesville, WI. The company employs up to 130 employees who work at various locations, and Spies cannot be everywhere at once.

“You may only have one or two people whose role in the company is health and safety,” he said. “With 13 and 14 different locations, you can only be at one or two of those sites per day. For 10 other sites, you’re relying on an employee to carry out safety.”

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