Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Definition: A federal agency that oversees the federal laws requiring employers to provide employees with a workplace free from hazardous conditions

OSHA was created by law in 1970 to oversee workplace safety and health. Today, it covers more than 100 million employees and six and a half million employers. Miners, transportation workers, many public employees, and those who are self-employed are about the only ones not covered by OSHA. Businesses that use nonemployee workers, such as independent contractors or volunteers, are also not subject to OSHA. Workers are considered employees under OSHA if you:

  • Control the actions of the employee,
  • Have the power to control the employee's actions, and
  • Are able to fire the employee or modify employment conditions.

OSHA itself employs more than 2,000 inspectors, plus hordes of investigators, engineers, physicians, educators and others in more than 200 offices nationwide.

OSHA has a labyrinth of rules regarding everything from asbestos to workplace violence. There are regulations on how to report injuries, document your safety program and on countless other topics, all of which vary by industry and even by the size of your firm. Many businesspeople complain about the burdens of complying with OSHA rules, but there's no doubt that the end result--a safer workplace--is a worthwhile goal. There's also no doubt that compliance with OSHA is not optional.

The first step in complying with OSHA is to learn the published safety standards. The standards you must adhere to depend on the industry you're in. Every business has to comply with general industry standards, which cover things like safety exits, ventilation, hazardous materials, personal protective equipment like goggles and gloves, sanitation, first aid and fire safety.

Under OSHA, you also have a general duty to maintain a safe workplace, which covers all situations for which there are published standards. In other words, just because you complied with the standards that specifically apply to your industry doesn't mean you're off the hook. You also need to keep abreast of possible hazards from new technology or rare situations the government may have thought of and published standards for.

Even OSHA realizes its rules can be daunting for small businesses. So the agency maintains an extensive online database of articles, handbooks, frequently asked questions, guidelines and more, especially for small businesses, at its website. Go to this section of its site to view the small-business-specific materials.

Ask your insurance carrier if an insurance company safety specialist can visit your business and make recommendations. Insurers are typically more than happy to do this since the safer your business is, the fewer accident claims you'll file. The government can also help you set up a safety program. Both OSHA and state safety organizations conduct safety consultation programs. Check to see what programs your state safety department offers, too. You'll find local offices of government agencies as well as state organizations listed in the government pages of your phone book, usually under "Labor Department," "Department of Commerce" or a similar name.

Don't forget to tap into the resources of your chamber of commerce, industry trade association and other business groups. Many offer safety seminars and provide safety training literature free or for a nominal charge. In addition, there are private consultants who can help small businesses set up safety programs that meet OSHA regulatory standards. Your lawyer may be able to recommend a good one in your area.

When you have a safety program in place, put it in writing with a safety manual that should explain what to do in the event of a fire, explosion, natural disaster or any other catastrophe your business may face. Make sure you keep well-stocked fire extinguishers and first-aid kits at convenient locations throughout your building. Also make sure employees know where these are located and how to use them. In addition to emergency procedures, your safety manual should explain proper procedures for performing any routine tasks that could be hazardous. Ask employees for input here; they are closest to the jobs and may know about dangerous situations that aren't obvious to you.

Finally, have an insurance professional, a government representative and an attorney review the finished manual. You're putting your company's commitment to safety on the line, so make sure you get it right.

Emphasize the importance of safety with meetings, inspections and incentive programs. These don't have to cost a lot (or anything). Try establishing a "Safe Employee of the Month" award or giving a certificate for a free dinner for winning suggestions on improving safety.

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