Every organization needs a written safety program, whether it’s as simple as an office fire drill plan or as complex as pathogen control in a busy hospital. As a business leader, you may wonder if you really need to put your safety policies in writing, especially if your organization is small.
For large businesses, written safety programs are essential because responsibility must be clearly assigned to avoid confusion.
For small businesses with simple operations and few hazards, it may seem possible to effectively communicate policies and procedures verbally and by example. However, employers have a legal responsibility under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-related law to:
- Use written labels and signs or color coding to warn employees of hazards.
- Communicate safety- and health-related operating procedures to employees.
- Provide safety training to employees in a language and vocabulary they understand.
A number of OSHA standards require employers to have written compliance programs. The most far-reaching is the hazard communication program, which affects all employers that manufacture, store or use hazardous chemicals.
There are also written program requirements specific to different industries. For example, health care facilities must have written bloodborne pathogen exposure control plans to protect workers.
Employers can use OSHA’s Compliance Assistance Quick Start portal to find out which policy requirements apply to their businesses.
Most municipalities have their own rules about business safety plans for fires and severe weather, too. First step toward meeting all these requirements is to put safety policies in writing.
A written policy can also help your business to establish a culture of safety. And a safety-focused culture can protect your employees and your employer brand as you grow.
Benefits of written health and safety policies
Even if there’s no clear regulatory requirement for a written safety plan, having one can benefit your business in ways besides compliance.
After all, the main goal is to prevent workplace injuries, illnesses or deaths that would cause harm and financial hardship to your workers, their families and your organization. A plan that’s easy to refer to is one that’s more likely to be followed.
Putting your plan in writing can also help reduce costs related to workers’ compensation premiums. That’s because when you have a safety program in writing for your employees to follow, it’s more likely that your employees will remember safety best practices and specific trainings as they work.
A written safety plan can also engage workers in reaching and maintaining your organization’s safety goals. When you build a culture of safety and compliance, you may not only save on lost work time and insurance claims, you may also see an increase in productivity because less time is devoted to resolving safety-related problems.
Consequences of not having an adequate safety program
Because OSHA and many other governing bodies only do safety inspections in response to an incident, it can be easy for a business to get complacent about safety policies. But when there is an injury or accident that brings inspectors on-site, OSHA may look at the organization’s entire safety program, not just the initial incident.
In these cases, it’s important to have a written safety policy, to demonstrate to investigators that your business takes worker safety seriously. It’s when OSHA comes on-site to investigate and finds that there’s nothing in place that citations and costly fines are more likely happen.
It’s worth noting that the new maximum penalties OSHA can impose are:
- $13,494 per serious, other-than-serious or posting requirements violation
- $13,494 per day for failure to correct problems after the deadline set by OSHA
- $134,937 per willful or repeated violation
Best practices for building a workplace safety program
How can you create or update your organization’s safety plan? OSHA recommends that employers focus on seven core elements:
1. Management leadership
To be effective, written safety programs need buy-in from management.
A top-down approach helps sets the tone and the path for sharing your safety policies, from leadership to management and then to the employees. Just as culture starts at the top, so does a commitment to safety.
2. Worker participation
Safety information should flow upward in your organization, too.
Employees may have firsthand observations and concerns that need to be part of your written safety plan, so it’s wise to establish a clear path for sharing that information with managers and leadership.
Employee insights can help with the third core element of a good safety plan: identifying hazards.
3. Hazard identification and assessment
Every workplace needs a basic safety plan that outlines fire exits and what to do in case of a weather or public safety emergency. But to move beyond the basics, every business needs to take stock of its own hazard and risk profile. That starts with a job hazard analysis (JHA), which is an evaluation of your business operations and any risks that are involved.
For example, a dry-cleaning business that works with heating elements and chemicals will have a very different set of hazards and risks than a day care, where play equipment, food handling and site security are key safety issues.
Walking through your site, including storage areas and outside areas, and walking through the tasks your employees do can help you build a list of potential hazards that your plan should cover.
If your business has more than one location, you’ll need to develop a customized safety plan for each one. For example, a transportation company that has forklifts at one site and not at others will need a forklift safety program in place, at least for that location.
4. Hazard prevention and control
Identifying the hazards is the first step. The next is developing procedures and policies to prevent injuries and illness due to those hazards.
So, for a business that only operates forklifts at one of its locations, a basic hazard prevention policy would be to say that only workers who’ve been trained on forklift operations and safety may use the equipment, even if you’re shorthanded and people from other locations have come to help.
A day care, on the other hand, might have keypad-controlled entry doors and a strict written policy not to buzz in unexpected visitors. And a dry cleaner will have rules about how to safely handle the chemicals they use, as well as material safety data sheets (MSDS) on each chemical.
5. Education and control
When you’ve identified your hazards and developed prevention and control procedures for each one, the next step is training your employees on your safety plan. The schedule you set depends on the level of risk and ongoing training required to manage hazards, maintain compliance and keep your people safe…