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Maintaining a Safe Workplace Your employees deserve a safe working environment--and the government requires it. Here's how to do it.

Why worry about safety? Because failing to do so could literally destroy your business. Besides the human loss, workplace accidents cost money and time. You could be liable for substantial penalties that could wipe out your business's cash flow. So paying attention to safety is definitely worth your time.

OSHA Regulations
All employers, whether they have one employee or 1,000, are subject to federal OSHA requirements. However, in states where a federally certified plan has been adopted, the state plan governs. State standards must be at least as strict as the federal standards.

In some cases, businesses who use nonemployee workers, such as independent contractors, are also 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
  • Are able to fire the employee or modify employment conditions

Small employers (with 10 or fewer employees) are typically exempt from regularly scheduled OSHA inspections and don't' have to report injuries and illnesses. However, that doesn't mean they are exempt from OSHA regulations.

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, you aren't 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.

Sound exhausting? Help is available. Start with your insurancecarrier. Ask 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 deparmtnet 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 smiliar name.

Don't forget to tap into the resources of your chamber of commerce, industry trade associations and other business groups. Many offer safety seminars and provide saftey training literature free or for a nominal charge. In a 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.

Writing a Safety Manual
When you have a safety program in place, put it in writing with a safety manual. Your safety manual should explain what to do in the even 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.

Manual Labor

Sooner or later, every entrepreneur needs to write a manual. An employee policy manual, a procedures manual or a safety manual are just a few of the more important ones.

Even if you have only one employee, it's not too soon to start putting policies in writing. Doing so now--before you staff grows--can prevent bickering, confusion and lawsuits later when Steve finds out you have Joe five sick days and he only got four.

How to start? As with everything, begin with planning. Write a detailed outline of what you want to include. As you write, focus on making sure the manual is easy to read and understand. Think of the simplest, shortest way to convey information. Use bullet points and numbered lists, where possible, for easier reading.

A lawyer or human resources consultant can be invaluable throughout the process. At the very least, you'll want your attorney to review the finished product for loopholes.

Finally, ensure all new employees receive a copy of the manual and read it. Include a page that employees must sign, date and return to you stating they have read and understood all the information in the manual and agree to abide by your company's policy. Maintain this in their personnel file.

Excerpted from Start Your Own Business.

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