If you’re a sole proprietor working out of your home, workplace safety probably isn’t high on your priority list. The subject typically arises when you start to expand past your humble beginnings, thereby exposing yourself to liability issues that you never considered. Beyond that, laws are in place that require employers to provide a hazard-free workplace.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970 is the principal federal law that addresses health and safety in the work environment. Its purpose is to eliminate or control risks that could cause death or serious bodily harm. Examples include mechanical dangers of machinery and equipment, lack of sanitation, excessive noise, toxic chemicals and substances, and exposure to temperature extremes.
While OSHA imposes requirements and standards at the federal level, there are approved state programs that could include more stringent and additional requirements.
It’s important that all businesses understand their obligations under OSHA. The details and complexities of the law may be more than you’re equipped to deal with. In that event, you can request OSHA to perform a confidential, onsite consultation that’s tailored specifically to your business.
This article provides a brief overview of the compliance areas that apply to “general industry” which encompasses retail, wholesale, and manufacturing entities.
Walking & Working Surfaces
Trips, slips, and falls are the most common accidents and the goal of the regulations is to prevent them to the greatest extent possible. Applicable standards exist for stairways, floors, aisles, ladders, platforms and any other exposed surfaces in the workplace.
The requirements are based on the circumstances of the employer and the potential exposure to various hazards. A medical and first-aid program must be in place that includes necessary personnel and supplies to care for potential incidents.
A fire prevention plan is mandatory when it’s imposed by an OSHA standard. Whether required or not, it’s highly recommended that all businesses maintain such a plan that includes clearly marked exit routes.
Wherever there are hazardous chemicals and substances, employees must know what they are and how to protect themselves. Among the many requirements is a hazard communication program that spells out the specifics for each work environment where exposure is possible.
OSHA has a self-inspection checklist that can be used to determine the nature and extent of hazardous substances. This is supplemented by an online tool that asks questions about the equipment, materials and activities you use to make your products or provide services. Based on your answers, it will identify the health and safety hazards that likely exist in your workplace. A report is produced that describes the risk associated with the hazards and the standards that apply to them.
Emergency Action Plan
An emergency action plan is mandatory when it’s imposed by an OSHA standard, but is highly recommended for all employers. It details the actions to be taken to ensure employees’ safety in the event of an emergency. This could include fire and potential natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes. The plan incorporates emergency evacuation plans and procedures.
Additional requirements may apply, and this list covers some of the more common standards you should be aware of:
- Electrical – Design requirements for electrical systems to avoid and correct wiring deficiencies, and how to implement safe work practices
- Noise – Exposure to excessive noise may require a hearing conservation program
- Machinery – Machine operators may be subject to machine guarding requirements (shears, saws, slicers, power presses, slitters, etc.)
- Machine starts – Lockout and/or tagout requirements may apply to equipment and machines that are subject to unexpected starts or hazardous energy release
- Forklifts – Operators of powered industrial trucks may be required to receive special training
- Airborne substances – Respirators and a respiratory protection program are mandated if necessary to protect employees’ health; work practice and engineering practices are implemented to control exposure incidents
- Protective equipment – While eliminating exposure to hazards is preferred, personal protective equipment is required if exposure is unavoidable
- Bloodborne pathogens – Exposure to blood or other bodily fluids may require a bloodborne pathogen and needlestick prevention program
- Confined spaces – Certain confined spaces may require a permit
The free onsite consultation is available to small and medium-sized businesses and does not result in enforcement actions or penalties. It’s designed to advise you on best compliance practices and establishing hazard prevention programs.
OSHA compliance specialists are available to conduct workshops and seminars, and they help coordinate appropriate training resources. They also offer cooperative programs that encourage labor groups, businesses and other organizations to actively work with OSHA to prevent workplace injuries and fatalities.
The OSHA Training Institute and Training Education Centers offer basic and advanced courses covering a broad range of health and safety topics. To attract more small business attendance, they’ve begun offering half-day and one-day seminars. Speakers are available for special engagements, as well as information services such as technical advice and audiovisual aids.
The Susan Harwood Training Grant program is focused on the education and training of employers and workers in the recognition and prevention of workplace hazards. Programs for small businesses are a priority of the grants which have funded small business development centers.
The OSHA website offers highly illustrated training tools on a wide variety of topics. They allow users to answer questions and receive advice in an interactive format. Informational and training publications are also available upon request.
This introduction to health and safety in the workplace only scratches the surface of what’s required to ensure a safe working environment and maintain legal compliance. It’s important that you find out how these regulations impact your specific business, and that you do it early. Get help if you need it. OSHA has many resources available so take advantage of them.
It’s important to note that even if a specific standard doesn’t apply to your business, the OSHA General Duty Clause requires that workplaces are free of recognized hazards that could cause serious injury or death. Don’t wait for something bad to happen before you seize the initiative to provide and promote a safe working environment.