From the March 1999 issue of Entrepreneur

Start checking your Yellow Pages for "Consultants" or, dare we say, "Attorneys." If the proposed OSHA Safety and Health Program Rule is finalized, you'll probably need an outside expert to tell you how to do a workplace risk assessment and train your employees.

If the plan is approved, all companies (excluding construction and agricultural businesses) will have to assess workplace hazards, fix those that can be fixed, and train employees how to avoid those that can't be fixed. Companies with more than 10 employees will also have to develop a written safety and health program. "Safety and health programs are the critical difference between employers with high injury rates and those with low rates," says OSHA administrator Charles Jeffress.

Dave Schnare, senior advisor on economic impact and analysis at the SBA Office of Advocacy, says 5 million businesses, most of them small, will be affected by the new Safety and Health Program Rule. OSHA and the SBA Office of Advocacy differ strongly over how many businesses will need a consultant to help them comply with the rule and how much that will cost. Schnare believes companies of all sizes will have to hire either an industrial safety expert or an attorney (or maybe even both) to understand the OSHA requirements and come up with a plan to satisfy them. Consultant costs could easily top $20,000 per small business, Schnare says.

Bob Burt, a senior economist at OSHA, acknowledges that some very small companies "may find it convenient" to turn to consultants, especially for employee training. "However, we think it would [cost] more like $250 to $500," he says.

Schnare believes business owners who prepare written hazard plans may face hazards of a different sort down the road, as risk assessments listing things in need of repair could become fodder for liability claims made by disgruntled employees. "If a guy slips in the shower on a bar of soap and the employer had `shower soap dish' on the to-do list, that employee could take the business owner to court and argue the owner knowingly allowed an unsafe workplace," he says. "This is a very serious complaint about the proposed rule."

Business groups are likely to sue OSHA over the proposed rule, according to Schnare. A federal court will probably have the final say, however, on whether the costs and benefits on which OSHA based the rule are legitimate. But groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is leading the fight against the rule, aren't waiting--they've already made their decision.


Stephen Barlas is a freelance business reporter who covers the Washington beat for 15 magazines.