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OSHA and Workplace Safety

Good business owners want their employees to have a workplace free of safety and health hazards. Large and small businesses must follow the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.

Unlike many federal laws, OSHA standards apply to businesses with even one employee. That means small business owners with a single part-time worker must follow the same safety programs and plans as a manufacturing plant with thousands of workers.

Fortunately, OSHA requirements for small businesses are less stringent than those for larger companies. This article reviews OSHA regulations for small business owners and what you must do for workplace safety.

Creating a Safe Work Environment

The OSHA works within the U.S. Department of Labor to reduce workplace hazards. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH) created safe working conditions guidelines.

OSHA also monitors recordkeeping to track workplace fatalities and injuries. Before the OSH Act, there were no standardized methods for determining which facilities were safe and which were not.

Basic Guidelines

OSHA divides businesses into five broad categories for reporting purposes:

  • General industry
  • Maritime (including shipyards and oil rigs)
  • Agriculture
  • Construction
  • General duty — all other businesses and industries

Businesses with one or more employees must follow the guidelines for their industries. Businesses with 11 or more workers must follow the recordkeeping and reporting requirements.

OSHA is a federal agency that gives generalized guidelines for workplace safety. Adapting and implementing the guidelines is up to each state. Most states adopted OSHA's guidelines and instituted their own review board. Twenty-one states have separate state plans with requirements that exceed federal OSHA requirements.

State plans should reflect the conditions of the worksite and the location. For instance, California has specific guidelines for heat injuries and illnesses. Michigan has special rules for bakery equipment and powered lifting platforms that OSHA does not cover.

Employee Safety Training

If your company has a human resources department, it should update your workers on all safety training and workplace compliance. OSHA recommends appointing a safety officer to keep things in order.

Safety training should reflect the needs of your worksite but must include some basic topics:

  • Work-related injuries: The most common cause of workplace injuries is falling. Whether employees fall off ladders or trip over loose carpets, your training should include warnings to watch for these common hazards.
  • Reporting: Even if you're not required to keep records, you must report all injuries promptly. OSHA and workers' compensation insurance need accurate records of on-site injuries and hospitalization from employers.
  • Hazard communication: Even if your business does not routinely handle toxic products, employees should know about hazardous chemicals at your workplace. Mark the location of personal protective equipment. Decontamination showers and eye wash stations must be available and unobstructed.

OSHA requires first aid "commensurate with the hazards of the workplace." A five-person office can manage with a simple first aid kit, while an offshore oil rig probably needs a paramedic on staff.

Reporting Requirements

Small businesses with fewer than 11 employees and certain low-risk industries do not have to keep records unless OSHA or another government agency asks. You can find a list of exempt businesses on OSHA's website. If your state has its own recordkeeping requirements, you may need to report to them.

If you are in a reporting occupation, you must document every injury requiring a doctor's visit. You only need to report certain injuries and illnesses requested by OSHA. These include:

  • Deaths
  • Amputations
  • Occupational hearing loss
  • Injuries causing loss of consciousness
  • Injuries requiring more than one day off work

OSHA also wants annual totals of severe injuries and the number of missed days.

Posters and Written Material

Federal law requires all employers to display the OSHA poster "It's the Law" at their workplace. You can download this poster and other safe workplace material from the OSHA website for free.

OSHA Inspections and Citations

OSHA will inspect a workplace for several reasons:

  • Following a death or serious accident report
  • After a report of a serious imminent threat
  • On getting a complaint from a worker or employee
  • A random inspection based on general criteria. Sometimes, other agencies have inspection requests for government programs.
  • Follow-up inspections to check compliance or abatement after prior violations

Employees can report hazards or violations to OSHA area offices. OSHA may inspect sites based on a reasonable belief that a hazard exists.

After the inspection, the OSHA inspector will meet with the employer to discuss any violations and corrections. OSHA has a policy of reducing penalties for small businesses. Inspectors have the authority to give credit for good-faith efforts taken during the inspection to correct hazards.

Violations and Penalties

OSHA classifies violations based on the amount of harm the violation did or could do and whether the employer tried to correct the situation:

  • A willful violation is any violation believed to be intentional, regardless of the harm caused.
  • Serious violations are those the employer knew or should have known would cause severe injury or death.
  • Non-serious violations would cause less severe injuries. ("Other-than-serious" violations would not cause injuries but still need correcting.)
  • Repeated violations are like those cited before (de minimis violations are those corrected in ways not approved by regulations).

Penalties for violations range from $16,131 for serious, non-serious, and other-than-serious citations to $161,323 for willful or repeated violations. Employers have the right to contest citations.

OSHA offers an on-site consultation program for small businesses to help locate and correct safety hazards and create and improve safety programs.

Legal Help With OSHA Regulations

Discuss your options with an employment law attorney if you are facing an OSHA investigation. You have the right to contest any citations and defend against any employee claim.

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