Safe at any size

Small firms target safety strategies

  • Impediments to small business workplace safety can be considerable because owners of small companies are often consumed by running the business, according to advocates.
  • State governments deliver free services to small firms under the OSHA On-Site Consultation Program.
  • Federal OSHA funds 90 percent of the OSC program for states.
By Marvin V. Greene

Cameron Glass Inc. in Broken Arrow, OK, is a small company in a high-hazard industry.

As a manufacturer of backboards for the NBA, workers at the facility handle and lift glass materials that typically range from 5 to 50 pounds, often with sharp edges. Keeping those workers safe – without the resources larger corporations have for safety, personnel, training and equipment – presents a considerable challenge, said Alex Skotarek, quality and safety manager for CamGlass.

With 112 employees, CamGlass has grown to a size that can accommodate a dedicated safety professional. However, many smaller firms struggle to balance production with safety. In fact, nearly 66,000 of the 87,465 citations federal OSHA issued during fiscal year 2008 for violations of workplace standards went to businesses with 50 or fewer employees. More often than not, small firms put safety responsibility in the hands of line supervisors, company owners or human resources personnel.

The numbers show

Smaller firms typically do not perform as well as larger companies when it comes to workplace injury and illness rates, according to federal data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a nonfatal injury and illness rate for all private industry of 4.2 per 10,000 workers in 2007; firms with 50-249 employees had a rate of 5.3. The rate rises even more for smaller firms engaged in construction and manufacturing: 6.2 and 6.6, respectively, according to BLS.

Small construction companies take an even greater hit in the statistical category of fatal work injuries, said Sue Dong, data center director for the Center for Construc­tion Research and Training in Silver Spring, MD, part of the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO. Of the 4,488 U.S. construction deaths between 1992 and 2005, 44 percent occurred among establishments with 10 or fewer workers, according to CCRT’s Construction Chart Book.

“What we’ve found is the performance of small companies in construction is poorer compared to large companies,” Dong said. “In construction, about 25 percent of the establishments are made up of one to 10 workers. That’s a lot.”

Help is available

It is “almost unheard of” for small firms to have their own dedicated safety resource, said Don Ostrander, director of consulting for the National Safety Council. Small businesses “have to rely on the staff that they have,” he said. “They have to make available time for the staff to become familiar with some basic tools for implementing a safety program.” CamGlass’ Skotarek points out that help is available for such businesses, including from OSHA, state-operated programs and other organizations willing to lend a hand.

Barbara Rahke is executive director for the Philadelphia section of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, an organization of 21 local and statewide coalitions. She said her organization tries to reach small construction firms at the community level. The Philadelphia COSH group regularly dispatches safety outreach and training professionals unannounced to city residential construction sites to connect with small contractors.

“We try to engage them on the spot,” Rahke said. “We are finding we have a lot of enormous success if we are there. We engage them in discussion or do training right on the spot. We try to get them open to calling us and working with us to do follow-up training.”

Small firms deal with a range of production issues that can compromise worker safety, Rahke said. “Some of them are small, but in a very competitive industry. They’re rushing to completion. They try to get in and out as quickly as they can to turn things over. They really don’t want attention brought to themselves, but it gets brought to them when OSHA cites them.”

Ostrander said that while small firms may be limited by a lack of resources, they still can have a strong safety culture if they assess and understand the risks relevant to their workplaces. “They need to recognize that there is value from a business standpoint. It is even more so for a small company. With a small company – let’s say 10 employees – when one or two people are off on job-related injuries, that is a big percentage of your workforce. You can’t make that up,” Ostrander said.

Making the case for safety
It is one thing to explain the value of safety to large corporations with multiple layers of safety personnel, procedures and resources, but ...

Free onsite consultation

Skotarek emphasized that free resources are targeted specifically to small companies. One key program is the OSHA On-Site Consultation Program. OSHA also maintains a compliance-assistance and outreach office for small firms, and agency training dollars are awarded annually to nonprofit entities that work with companies to develop safety and health management systems.

State governments offer confidential advice and site walkthroughs to businesses, giving priority to worksites in high-hazard industries. OSC is operated separately from federal OSHA or state plan enforcement activity, and does not generate penalties or citations unless an employer fails or refuses to eliminate or control a serious hazard.

Skotarek said CamGlass began participating in OSC in 2000. Since joining the program, the company’s recordable injury and illness rate has fallen dramatically – from about 40 incidents per year to four to six cases. In its first year of participation in OSC, CamGlass’s rate dropped 80 percent, he said.

“The comprehension level is really what we’re trying to drive home, that [glass] is an extremely dangerous piece of equipment, and it can break at any time prior to the tempering process with changes to the structure and the pressure inside of the glass,” Skotarek said. “Obviously, you have to have a plan. You have to have objectives. You have to have measurable metrics.”

William H. Weems, director of the consultation program in Alabama, which is operated through the University of Alabama, said the program attracts a full spectrum of small employers. “We get small employers that are in trouble,” he said. “On the other hand, we get some companies that are pretty good companies. They just want somebody to come in and check them out to make sure they’re doing OK.”

Federal OSHA funds 90 percent of the OSC program for the states. During fiscal year 2008, OSHA set aside $52.4 million in funding for the program. The states conduct approximately 30,000 visits to workplaces annually under the program.

Weems said demand is high. Alabama serves about 500-600 companies per year with an estimated two-month backlog unless a dire safety situation arises, he said. “We’ve had some companies that we’ve worked with closely and taught them how to manage safety, and they’ve actually used that knowledge and experience to manage other aspects of their companies,” Weems said.

Reducing workers’ comp costs

Ron Langley is a small-business liaison for Washington state’s Department of Labor and Industries, which operates the state’s consultation program. Langley said small firms that inquire about occupational safety and health services often are concerned with workers’ compensation costs.

Langley’s office, which serves 2,500 small firms annually, refers companies, when necessary, to the consultation program. He said one of his first tasks when speaking with small-business owners is to align employers’ goals to reduce workers’ comp with having a viable safety program.

“We make the suggestion that they can achieve short-term reductions in their workers’ comp costs, but the long-term goal is the safety plan,” Langley said. “The challenge we find frequently with small employers is they don’t know they are required to have an accident prevention program. That can be a challenge if you are a small-business owner and you’re working 18 hours a day just trying to keep things running.” Additionally, OSHA maintains a compliance-assistance and outreach office for small firms, and agency training dollars are awarded annually to nonprofit entities that work with companies to develop safety and health management systems.

Connecticut-based safety expert Rick Kaletsky sums up the responsibility of small firms in stark terms. Kaletsky, a former OSHA compliance officer, said a small company using its size as a reason for poor safety performance misses the mark. “If you’re lying in a hospital and your lungs are shot because of work, or you’re missing a limb, or you’re blind, or you have severe electrical burns, it doesn’t make any difference how big your employer was,” Kaletsky said.

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