Health & Safety is Essential Even for Small Businesses: A Guide to Getting Started

Health-and-Safety-Procedures

For small businesses, establishing health and safety in the workplace early on is essential. Why? Because the early stages of growth are the best times to put into place your policies and procedures. While the process is not complex, it's better to get in early rather than to scramble with a patchwork response when a crisis has already occurred because you don't have a policy in place. Here's a guide to the essentials of health & safety for small businesses:


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Your lean team and operations are also the perfect stage at which to test out these new policies and refine them before growth inevitably sets in. 

Not only will this provide more responsive policies, you'll also end up saving on major costs related to H&S:

  • According to a report by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the extrapolated cost of Irish workplace accidents and ill health is estimated to be between €3.3 and €3.6 billion per annum.
  • The UK-based Health and Safety Executive campaign reported that, on an annual basis, over 1 million injuries are experienced by workers and around 40 million working days are lost to business.
  • The initial costs associated with an accident are just the tip of the iceberg; a report by Mossink and De Greef says that more far-reaching consequences include disruption to production, bad publicity, administrative costs, legal costs and lost workdays.

Source: Health & Safety Authority

Recommended reading: How to Motivate Staff Through Employee Training

We tend to think that injuries at workplaces are limited mostly to construction, manufacturing and agriculture. But what about occupational illnesses?

Source: Health & Safety Authority

If you're setting up a small business in an office environment or you're in a tech-based business, your workers are just as vulnerable to workplace-related stresses and sicknesses.

Here is a guide to the essentials of health and safety for small businesses. 

What Is Ireland's Health & Safety at Work Act? 

Think about Health & Safety governing architecture in Ireland as a hierarchy with three tiers, with each one getting more specific. 

At the very top (and the most 'abstract') is the governing legislation, which is the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 2005.

Next, comes a number of additional 'Acts', which add on and get a little more granular with health and safety:

And, finally, there are a number of regulations that apply to places of work within Ireland. The most significant is the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations, 2007-2016. 

If you'd like to see these 'Acts' and 'regulations' in action, the best place is to check out the related 'Codes of Practice'. 

The duties of Employers in the Workplace

Under these laws, regulations, Acts and 'codes of practice', employers are essentially required to make sure that workers and others are protected from anything that may cause harm, effectively controlling any risks to injury or health that could arise in the workplace.

The good news is that, for small businesses, the steps you'll need to take are pretty straightforward. And, if you have fewer than five employees, you don't need to write down your risk assessment or your health and safety policy.

The core of the legislation is the risk assessment approach and the legal duty on employers to prepare a written health and safety document referred to as a Safety Statement. 

Employers (including the self-employed) are responsible for creating and maintaining a safe and healthy workplace.

Step one to that goal? Know what your duties are:

Employers

  • Conducting all work activities in a way that ensures the safety, health and welfare of people at work
  • Design and maintain a safe place of work, including using tools and equipment that meet safety standards and that don't place employees in a risky position, especially where it concerns their health
  • Giving employees accurate, updated information, instruction, training and supervision about health and safety procedures and processes
  • Making sure there are welfare facilities for employees at the workplace
  • Making sure that other people at your place of work such as customers, suppliers and sales representatives are also safe and not in danger of hurting themselves
  • Having plans in place for emergencies

Employees

  • Must follow the laws employers set down for their own safety and health; they're also responsible for making sure none of their co-workers' safety and health is endangered by their acts or omissions at work 
  • Ensure they're not working while they're under the influences of drugs or alcohol
  • Cooperate with their employer with regard to safety, health and welfare at work
  • Participate in safety and health training offered by their employer
  • Report any dangerous situations, practices or defects that might endanger a person’s safety, health or welfare

Why You Need to Pay Attention to the Health and Safety of Your Staff 

The health and safety of your staff is directly related to the health of your business. It's not only about the factors listed above — bad publicity, loss of productivity, legal costs, disruption to workflow — but also the actual costs to business in the form of ongoing benefits and compensations when claims for injuries are filed. 

Now, this is not to say that these claims don't need to be taken seriously or that employees can't or shouldn't be filing them — it is, after all, their lives, and, depending on the severity and extent of the injuries, even financial compensation is no recompense. 

But since small businesses especially rely on profit, and the effect of a loss in revenue due to skyrocketing claims and insurance costs are more directly and closely felt, there's no doubt that it's in everyone's welfare as well as business interests to mitigate these injuries right from the get go. 

In 20 case studies of workplace accidents, the Health & Safety Authority in Ireland found that:

  • While salary takes up 45% of an employer's total costs, the productivity losses and retraining costs from injuries accounted for a further 21%. This includes issues like connoted payment of salaries to absent staff plus the cost of replacement staff and overtime.
  • In one of the cases, an injury resulted in the plant shutting down for just one hour; the 'under'-estimated cost to the plant for this mere hour of non-production was €125,000.

A €200,000 claim

For Hugh O’Carroll, a manufacturing plant worker in his twenties, a machine injury changed his life. In 2005, Hugh was clearing a blockage from a stationary machine when another worker switched on the machine. Right away, Hugh's index and middle finger of his left hand were amputated. 

This cost the small business he was working at:

  • Total employer costs: €49,832
  • €16,273: Salary costs of injured employee
  • €1,000: Medical expenses
  • €32,059 Retraining of staff in machinery safety
  • €500 Poster campaign

The personal injury claim has been estimated to be in the region of €200,000.

Health & Safety Risk Assessments 

Your job as an employer is to provide a safe environment, ensuring the health and safety of all concerned and thinking through the design and workplace decisions you make through that lens. 

This means that you'll effectively need to measure and assess risk. 

Start with the big picture: your niche/industry and the activities your employees will be involved in. Are there obvious and recognised activities that could pose harm? Think about things like working at height, working with chemicals, machinery, gas, electricity and asbestos. 

This is an ongoing responsibility, not a 'set it and forget it' issue. You'll need to conduct risk assessments at strategic times, such as when you're adding new equipment, new office space, changing the layout or adding a new service. 

Besides the myriad of other decisions, you'll be required to make, your health and safety angle will help you focus on and see what situations or things might cause harm to people, allowing you to create a plan of action as to how to mitigate that harm.

  • Record your significant findings but keep it simple, focusing on what you can control
  • Use a risk assessment template to record these
  • Put together a committee responsible for conducting these assessments
  • Speak to staff who are interacting with equipment you're checking or who would directly be impacted by a proposed change to the environment 
  • For each hazard, write down the controls in place for management and then compare these to the HSE's website; if the controls are not good enough, write down what else needs to be done. 
  • Physically walk around the environment and focus on what's relevant to your niche, business format or industry; then, consider 'occasional' activities in the environment as well (like changing a light bulb).

Health and Safety Training

You've reviewed the key stakeholders, the vulnerable parties who could be at risk. You've also surveyed the environment and discovered potential issues, noted them down, and created changes to the health and safety policies and procedures at your workplace. 

But what about ongoing training? 

As your review the possible sites of risk, you'll encounter training that employees will have to take in order to keep them protected. After all, it's also their responsibility to follow these procedures. 

Who's eligible? 

  • new recruits
  • employees who are changing jobs or taking on extra responsibilities out of their immediate roles
  • youth employees
  • health and safety representatives.

Health and Safety Policies & Procedures for an Accident at Work 

In workplaces, even within small business formats, there are usually a group of employees who are dedicated to taking care of health and safety procedures, checks and standards. As an owner of the business, this can help free up your time enormously.

This doesn't mean that you're not in charge or still responsible for keeping in the loop or actually making those changes yourself. It just means that you can, if you wish, delegate some of the risk assessment and follow-ups to trained employees you trust.

  • Start by consulting with your employees — talk about their concerns, encourage them to share stories and discuss possible solutions, come up with suggestions for decisions. There may be risks you hadn't even thought of but, for your employees, it's an everyday affair.
  • Next, after working through risk assessments and decisions, write down how you (or the H&S committee/representative) will be managing health and safety in the business; these are the actual written, directive policies and procedures which will outline frequent situations of risk and guide employees on their next steps.
  • Make sure to have first aid and emergency arrangements on the premises, including a stocked first-aid box, a person appointed to take charge of first-aid arrangements, and information for all employees giving details of first-aid arrangements.
  • Create and post health and safety policies and procedures at identified sites where these risks are most likely to result in an injury or accident

For your small business to really be successful in the arena of health and safety, here are two points of consideration. 

  1. First off, any small business with employees calls for employers' liability insurance. Claims filed by employees will be fulfilled by your liability insurance provider. Having a health and safety review scheduled on the books, coupled with follow-up actions to mitigate risk, show your insurance company that you have taken reasonable steps to prevent accidents or harm to your employees.
  2. Secondly, you're required by law to make a report and keep a record of certain injuries, incidents and cases of work-related disease. If you do this, you'll also be able to identify patterns of accidents and injuries. This is basically documentation or a paper trail, which will further help in your insurance claim. If you're going digital, however, make sure that your records and any sensitive and personal information are protected. 

When you've taken the time to understand the laws and regulations businesses must follow, and to have a health and safety policy clearly established, assessed, reviewed, and followed, you can have confidence that you've done everything possible to keep your employees safe and healthy at work.

Over to you now. How did you approach health and safety for your business? Tell us in the comments below. 

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