Tuesday, January 12, 2016

OHS in small enterprises

Jason Foster and I are currently working on a new textbook on occupational health and safety. It will be an open educational resource (OER)—which means it will be free for anyone to use in digital format as well as available at a very low cost.

One of the things we’ve tried to focus on are small enterprises. Most private-sector workers are employed by companies with fewer than 100 employers (and more than a third are employed by companies with fewer than 20 workers). Small employers are largely absent from most OHS textbooks even though small enterprises have higher rates of workplace incidents.

There are many reasons for this heightened risk of injury, including the highly personalized nature of the employment relationship in smaller enterprises and a lack of safety resources, knowledge and capacity. Small enterprises are less likely to conduct hazard evaluations, which leads to higher levels of incidents. Smaller employers also often lack access to information and resources that can facilitate effective hazard assessment. They do not have in-house safety professionals to lead the process and lack training capacity.

In general the lack of knowledge and experience found in small enterprises decreases the likelihood a thorough hazards assessment will be conducted. Compounding this problem is that many of the existing hazards assessment processes and resources are aimed at larger enterprises and may appear ill-suited for a small operation. Small employers are also more likely to leave issues of workplace health and safety in the hands of their employees, which discourages effective hazard recognition, assessment and control (HRAC).

The challenge to implementing an effective HRAC in small enterprises can be significant. There are issues of resources as well as incorrect perceptions. Small employers possess fewer resources (in terms of time and money) to conduct hazard assessments which leads to inadequate assessments. Further, the cost of implementing controls can be more challenging for a smaller employer. Small employers (and their workers) may also feel like the requirements written into legislation don’t apply to their small operation and may instead rely on “informal” mechanisms for ensuring safety. These informal measures are less effective than formal HRAC processes. In general, small employers do not devote sufficient time and energy to safety.

In addition to being legally required across Canada, hazard identification is important for small enterprises because small enterprises have less margin for error than larger enterprises. Work processes tend to be completed by fewer people and in less time. This means there are fewer opportunities to consider safety issues and fewer people to monitor compliance. And, often in small enterpsies, the distance between employer and worker can also be short—often the employer performs substantially the same work alongside the workers.

One of the ways to overcome the challenges of HRAC in small enterprises is to start early. It is smart to ensure safe work processes are established at the beginning of operation because these processes can be difficult to alter once they are established. Formalizing safety processes is also very important in order to overcome peer pressure to let safety issues slide in small workplaces. While formal safety processes might feel “strange” at first, they are a crucial step to ensuring a safer workplace in small enterprises.

The closer ties between workers and employers can also aid employers in identifying hazards and hazard mitigation strategies, as it is easier for worker concerns to reach key decision makers. That said, workers in small enterprises may be reluctant to raise safety concerns when their employment is dependent upon their direct relationship with the employer. This speaks, once again, to the importance of establishing formal mechanisms for addressing safety issues.

-- Bob Barnetson

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