Safety culture

Safety and the small business

Resources are available to meet challenges

small business
Image: Mike Sharkey

Scott Murin was trying to make an impression. The branch manager at Harris Rebar in Meridian, ID, stepped up to the whiteboard during a team safety meeting in 2012.

“I wrote the word ‘Safety,’” Murin said. “Underneath it, I drew a horizontal line. Below that line, I wrote the word ‘Production.’ I said, ‘You see the word ‘Safety’ over ‘Production’? That’s the new us.’”

For Murin and many other small-business leaders, putting worker safety above the bottom line can be challenging.

The Small Business Administration defines a small business as an establishment with fewer than 500 employees. In 2018, about 30.2 million small businesses employed approximately 58.9 million workers, or 47.5% of the U.S. workforce, according to SBA.

Small businesses typically don’t have the same resources, finances or time to devote to safety as larger organizations. That can lead to higher injury rates, suggests a 2018 study published in the journal Occupational Health Science.

Researchers noted that small organizations with 50 to 249 employees had a total recordable injury and illness incidence rate of 3.7 per 100 employees, compared with 3.3 for businesses with over 1,000 employees, based on 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rates were even higher for small organizations in industries such as nursing and residential care (7.2 per 100) and manufacturing (4.5).

Murin’s whiteboard illustration was a turning point for the 18 employees at his company, which fabricates rebar for bridges, buildings and other construction projects.

“It kind of started ringing a bell,” said Murin, whose message remains on the whiteboard today. “If we have some sort of near miss that could’ve been bad, we’ll shut the whole place down and talk about it. It’s worth it to drive the point home.”

Investing in safety

Just because small businesses may not have the same resources doesn’t mean a safety program is out of reach. The benefits of operating safely far outweigh the consequences of a serious incident: According to a 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, worker injuries and illnesses cost U.S. businesses $225.8 billion a year. So what holds small businesses back?

“It’s usually money,” said John Vasquez, a safety consultant with the National Safety Council. “They’re afraid of investing too much in safety and not enough in their own business. They’re concerned (about safety) – it’s just that the money can outweigh the issues with safety. Sometimes, they just roll the dice and hope nothing happens.”

In 1997, Dan Valdez became the first safety director at Central Machining and Pump Repair in Minot, ND. The company’s new owners were in the process of paying off the business, which meant financial resources were limited.

“All the equipment was old,” said Valdez, who also is the company’s general manager. “There was no guarding. It didn’t come with the safety factors you see today.”

A visit from an OSHA compliance officer was a wake-up call. “We had to stop using that equipment until we fixed it,” Valdez said. “It doesn’t make a difference whether it’s old or not, the standard says you have to guard it.”

Creating a safety culture

When Valdez began his duties more than 20 years ago, he encountered a few of his 25 full-time employees unwilling to listen to the message.

“They were set in their ways,” Valdez said. “I had to be tactful about it. It was difficult in the beginning. I couldn’t get through to a lot of them. It had to change. We had too many people getting injured.”

Safety doesn’t tend to stick, experts say, unless the message comes directly from leadership.

“Is safety the most important thing to you or not?” asked Lou Allegra, a Pennsylvania-based mentor for SCORE – a resource partner of SBA that offers free services to help entrepreneurs and small-business owners navigate business challenges. “Do you care if your employees get injured or not? Safety has to be No. 1.”

Vasquez agreed: “If it’s not important to your boss, it’s not important to you.”

When leadership emphasizes the importance of safety, workers often follow suit. “When they’re comfortable in that setting and they know people care about them, the quality will come and the productivity will increase,” Allegra said. “I’ve seen that time and time again.”

Allegra said bringing on new employees also should have a safety component.

“You have to hire people who have the outlook that they’re going to work safely and they’re going to help other people work safely,” he said.

When consulting, Vasquez encounters plenty of business leaders who are concerned about the financial costs of safety. His message to them is simple.

“The safety program doesn’t have to be expensive,” he said. “Free resources are a good start. If they are a smaller company, we try to give them as many free resources as possible.”

OSHA encourages small-business owners to use the agency’s no-cost On-Site Consultation Program to “find out about potential hazards at their workplace, improve programs that are already in place and even qualify for a one-year exemption from routine OSHA inspections.”

Additionally, the NIOSH Small Business Assistance Program uses research, outreach and prevention activities to assist businesses with fewer than 50 employees in reducing workplace deaths, injuries and illnesses.

State OSHA offices, labor departments and workforce groups also provide resources and potential savings. For example, Valdez discovered that North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance launched the Ergonomic Initiative Grant in 2009. The program provides financial assistance for employers to buy ergonomic equipment.

How can safety help small-business owners save money?

Some small-business owners may find the cost of a safety and health program daunting. Here are seven ways safety can benefit the bottom line:

  • Lower workers’ compensation insurance costs
  • Reduce medical expenditures
  • Increase productivity
  • Enhance morale
  • Decrease turnover
  • Save money on overtime benefits
  • Improve labor-management relationships

Source: OSHA

Training priorities

Time is a valuable resource for small businesses, as well.

Although safety is only one of many hats he wears, Valdez makes sure workers have his undivided attention while training.

“I can take guys out of the shop to our conference room,” he said. “We can sit there for an hour and go over everything when it comes to confined spaces or whatever topic we need to.”

Valdez, who also is an OSHA outreach trainer, said he ensures his workers stay current on many subjects, including OSHA’s 10-hour construction training.

“I take everything seriously,” Valdez said. “If somebody passes out inside a tank that we’re working on in the shop, we better know how to rescue that person and save their life.”

At the Idaho location he oversees, Murin conducts safety meetings twice a month for 30 to 45 minutes. He said he has been a safety resource for other Harris Rebar locations, as well as competitors.

“There are no boundaries in safety,” he said. “I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, regardless of where they work.”

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