Workplace Safety Law & Legal Definition


The primary law governing workplace safety are administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA aims to ensure worker safety and health in the United States by working with employers and employees to create better working environments. Workplace inspections are one of OSHA's principal activities. OSHA enforces workplace safety standards, and reaches out to employers and employees through technical assistance and consultation programs. In 2002, occupational injury and illness rates were 5.3 cases per 100 workers, with 4.7 million injuries and illnesses among private sector firms. Work-related injuries and illnesses in the manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, and services sectors accounted for about 78 percent of this 4.7 million.

States also have enacted laws to regulate workplace safety. State laws vary, so local laws sould be consulted to determine the standards in your workplace.

Workplace violence is a serious safety issue. In the United States, there is a “General Duty Clause” in the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The General Duty Clause would include recognized threats of violence. California has legislation that requires businesses to have a workplace injury prevention plan and a specific law to combat violence in hospitals. Washington and Florida have laws in place to protect against certain types of retail violence. Employers may be liable for neglgent hiring when they fail to use reasonable care in screening applicants, for example, hiring a person with a criminal history of child abuse who are hired to work in contact with the children.

Most North American jurisdictions also have legislation on stalking, threats, harassment and physical assault.

Additional Definitions

Workplace Safety

Workplace safety refers to the working environment at a company and encompasses all factors that impact the safety, health, and well-being of employees. This can include environmental hazards, unsafe working conditions or processes, drug and alcohol abuse, and workplace violence. Workplace safety is monitored at the national level by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA has three stated goals that serve as the cornerstones of its policies and regulations: 1) Improve the safety and health for all workers, as evidenced by fewer hazards, reduced exposures, and fewer injuries, illnesses, and fatalities; 2) Change workplace culture to increase employer and worker awareness of, commitment to, and involvement in safety and health; 3) Secure public confidence through excellence in the development and delivery of OSHA's programs and services. The federal guidelines imposed by this agency are complemented by state regulations that are often tougher than those proposed by OSHA.

NATIONAL WORKPLACE INJURY AND ILLNESS DATA

Every year the Department of Labor, through its Bureau of Labor Statistics, publishes the workplace injury and illness data that it gathers and compiles. In 2004, 5,764 people lost their lives while on the job in the United States. These fatalities were caused, primarily, to traffic-related incidents (45 percent), followed by assaults and violent acts (18 percent), falls (15 percent), contact with objects and equipment (14 percent), and finally, exposure to harmful substances.

The nonfatal injuries and illnesses reported in 2004, serious enough to require time-away from work, numbered 1.27 million, a rate of injury equivalent to 141.3 per 100,000 full-time workers. These data include all work-related injuries and illnesses that resulted in time-away from work beyond the day on which the injury occurred. The median number of days away from work per incident in 2004 was 7 days. By category of injury, the national data break down as follows: Sprains and strains (41.7 percent), bruises and contusions (9.1 percent), cuts and lacerations (7.8 percent), fractures (7.5 percent), heat burns and carpal tunnel syndrome (1.5 percent each), and other injuries and illnesses make up the remaining 5.8 percent of workplace injuries. The goods-producing industries have a higher rate of on-the-job injury than do the service industries with one exception. Businesses in the transportation sector are part of the service industry but they have a very high rate of on-the-job injuries.

IMPROVING WORKPLACE SAFETY AT A SMALL BUSINESS

Most small business owners take steps to try and assure that their place of work is a safe one because it is the right thing to do. Beyond being the right thing to do, smaller companies usually recognize that the benefits to be gained by a safe work environment are many. Attention to safety issues can not only help businesses avoid legal penalties, but also improves employee morale, productivity, and retention. Moreover, effective workplace safety programs often have a tremendous impact on a company's bottom-line financial performance. In addition to the hidden benefits in retention and productivity that go hand-in-hand with such programs, businesses armed with solid workplace safety policies and records realize enormous benefits in the realm of insurance. An employer's workers' compensation premium is based on several factors. These include payroll, a classification of employees by occupational type, and the company's accident history. No factor has more control over insurance premiums or is less understood by policy holders than the experience modification or 'mod.' The mod is an indicator of how an individual operation's accident rate compares to other businesses within its industry. Three consecutive years of actual workers' compensation claims provide the statistical basis for an employer's mod. Under this system, companies that are deemed to have a higher accident rate (as determined by workers' compensation claims over a three-year period) than the industry average pay higher premiums. Conversely, companies that boast a claim rate lower than the industry average will benefit by paying less expensive premiums.

Workplace safety programs can take many forms and cover many potential areas of concern. The sorts of actions taken by companies to maximize the safety of the work environment that they create are varied and include:

  • Providing for personal safety equipment
  • Installing equipment controls
  • Creating and disseminating operational manuals
  • Establishing and enforcing hazardous materials handling policies
  • Adopting a drug and alcohol testing program
  • Offering employee counseling services
  • Implementing safety training programs.

Following are several avenues that small firms can pursue when implementing or updating a workplace safety program.

Safety Managers and Committees

One method that many firms have had success with is to appoint one person in the organization as the safety coordinator. The ideal candidate has a background in safety, but if no one fits that profile, then choose the candidate who best relates to workers and management, has strong communication skills, and has an interest in and commitment to safety. A common title for this person is "safety manager."

For the safety manager to do his or her job, he or she must have direct access to the top manager in the company. Without management buy-in, safety initiatives will not last long. The manager must also have access to every department and work area, and must be able to question people freely for the purpose of gathering information. Regular status reports should be prepared that update management on current safety initiatives and identify areas that still need improvement. Ideally, the safety manager's role will remain an advisory one: responsibility for implementing the manager's suggestions should fall to upper management and the individuals or teams that are singled out by the safety manager. The safety's manager's mandate is to facilitate change, not implement it.

Many analysts believe that businesses should make certain that safety managers are adequately educated on workplace safety issues as well. Business owners are thus often encouraged to send managers to training and education seminars or classes as part of an overall policy of ongoing education. Additionally, management should encourage the manager to seek out safety professionals at other companies to help him or her build a network of contacts and information. Upper management is also responsible for ensuring that safety performance is made a part of every employee's job responsibility and performance reviews. Only when every employee is held accountable for safety will it become a part of a company's culture.

The best starting point for a new safety manager is often to review company records of past safety problems. By drawing up a list of areas that are known problems, the manager can identify the best place to begin implementation of new safety measures. Of course, it is also important that the manager immediately follow up on any disquieting patterns or dangerous situations that are discovered and implement action steps to correct the problems. Unfortunately, in some instances safety managers will find that workplace safety reports are scant or nonexistent. In such instances, the manager should start from ground zero and establish a formal accident/safety reporting system to gather data.

Documentation and record keeping serve two additional purposes—they provide written evidence that the new safety program is providing positive results and they can be used to protect the firm in the event that a lawsuit is filed or safety inquiry launched. Documentation of employee training sessions is especially important, including the topics covered, the date and time at which the sessions were held, and any test scores earned by employees at the sessions. Consultants cite testing as a potentially valuable way of determining employee retention of safety information.

The safety manager should seek to involve all employees and managers in safety initiatives. Inspections should be conducted by the personnel of each department, not the safety manager. In fact, the manager should let each department handle most of its own safety problems—if proper training has been given to all employees, the safety manager should only have to address serious problems that require his or her knowledge and authority.

Studies have shown that safety committees can be valuable tools in implementing and maintaining safety programs as well. Safety committees, which typically feature representation from all operational areas, have been shown to reduce the injury rate at companies, which in turn can boost morale and efficiency. Companies that use committees have also reported some unexpected benefits, including an increased sense of teamwork, better sharing of information, and a drop in absenteeism, discrimination claims, grievances, and sick days. Not all small business enterprises reach a size that warrant creation of such committees. But for growing businesses with a significant payroll, safety and health committees can provide important benefits. The committees, which ideally will include a cross-section of employees, should serve as a central gathering and dissemination point for all information related to safety.

Outside Safety Analysis

Another potentially useful option for entrepreneurs interested in determining workplace safety is to have an outside firm conduct a safety analysis. These firms specialize in safety and hazardous materials and can offer many suggestions on how to improve safety. Analysts note that reports submitted by these organizations often range from warnings of regulatory breaches to suggestions on alternative production methods, etc. Not all safety improvement suggestions are implemented, of course. Some courses of action may be deemed excessively expensive, while others are dismissed because of employee resistance or skepticism about their ultimate impact on workplace safety.

Safety Incentives

Business owners and consultants alike agree that safety managers and consultants will likely not have a meaningful impact on a company's safety records if the employees are not willing to do their part to help make things better. One of the best ways to ensure employee cooperation is to offer incentives tied to improvements in safety, although observers are quick to add that safety incentives are not an adequate substitute for a strong safety program. In fact, only companies that have a strong program already in place should even think of using incentives. Cash and non-cash awards should only be used to motivate employees to practice what the already-in-place program preaches, which reinforces behavior and encourages participation.

Incentives should reward behaviors that prevent injury by eliminating unsafe work practices. Reward employees who achieve "zero accidents," but be sure to use a broad definition of accident (such as one that would cause an employee to miss time on the job) so that employees do not try to cover up minor injuries in order to keep their zero accident rating. Once the behaviors to be rewarded are identified, then determine allocation of awards (individual, department, or company-wide).

To make an incentive program really work, several things must be done. First, the incentives must be an ongoing element of the workplace. One-time incentive programs tend to get employees interested for a short time, then cause them to lose interest and fall back into bad habits once the period has passed. Second, meaningful incentives should be chosen. Many experts believe that non-cash incentives can be most effective, warning that under cash-based reward systems, employees too often pocket the cash and forget about the ongoing message. Some companies do believe that cash works best, while others feel using cash sends people the wrong message by paying them extra for practices that they should already be doing. Good examples of non-cash incentives include recognition awards, token gifts that build morale, customized items (clothing, for example), and, most effective of all, professional advancement. Finally, goals and results must be clearly communicated to employees at every step of the process.

Small business owners should not be scared of the costs associated with running an incentive program. Even if the program costs several thousand dollars annually, many economists and business experts contend that the expense is insignificant compared to the productivity lost as a result of poor safety practices.

WORKPLACE VIOLENCE AS A SAFETY ISSUE

Every act of workplace violence leaves scars on every person in the organization. One act of violence can change an entire company permanently. The working environment can become so toxic that no work gets done—all employees can think about is what happened. From the company perspective, violence also leaves the company exposed to lawsuits and liability that can cost millions of dollars.

There are steps that can be taken to prevent or at least minimize the chances of workplace violence. The most important step is for the company's leadership to communicate a zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence and behaviors (bullying, harassment, defiance of management, etc.) that can lead to such events. At the same time, businesses should display a corresponding determination to create and maintain a safe workplace for employees by examining their existing security, hiring, and performance appraisal policies.

In a recent Risk Management article the moderator of the round table discussion presented in the piece posed this question: If you could boil down the essence of a successful workplace safety program to a single principle, what would that principle be and why? In response, one of the managers partaking in the discussion offered this summary thought, "For us, the cardinal virtue of workplace safety is visibility. If safety is not a visible, hands-on, personal thing, then it has no impact for the organization."

SEE ALSO Ergonomics; Industrial Safety; Occupational Safety and Health Administration

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Huelk, Ernie. "Get the Most Out of Personal Protective Equipment." Industrial Safety & Hygiene News. March 2006.

Milam-Perez, Lisa A. HR How-To: Workplace Safety, Everything You Need to Know to Ensure a Safe and Healthy Workplace. CCH Incorporated, 2003.

"Off-the-Job Injuries Outpace Gain in Workplace Safety." Plant Engineering. April 2006.

"Risk Management Magazine Workplace Safety Round Table." Risk Management. November 2005.

U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Lost-Worktime Injuries and Illnesses, Characteristics and Resulting Time Away from Work." News Press Release. 13 December 2005.

U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wiatrowski, William J. "Occupational Safety and Health Statistics, Data for a New Century." Monthly Labor Review. October 2005.

U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Computer Workstations Checklist. Available from http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/computerworkstations/checklist.html. Retrieved on 11 May 2006.

                                Hillstrom, Northern Lights

                                  updated by Magee, ECDI