Small firms need OHS services tailored to their needs

When it comes to occupational health and safety (OHS), small businesses are not large firms on a smaller scale. They have unique features that affect their approach to workplace health and safety, and these features should be taken into account by OHS professionals and policy-makers when designing small-firm programs and services.

Published: February 10, 2009

This is a key message of a systematic review of the research on OHS in small businesses, led by Institute for Work & Health (IWH) Scientists Dr. Ellen MacEachen and Dr. Curtis Breslin. OHS programs designed for large firms cannot simply be scaled down and imported into small businesses, says MacEachen. They have different cultures that give rise to different OHS needs.

The whys and hows of the review

Small businesses, defined as those with 100 or fewer workers, play a pivotal role in the Canadian economy. They employ half of all people working in the private sector, and make up 97 per cent of goods-producing businesses and 98 per cent of service-producing businesses in the country.

Given the importance of small firms, a team of 15 reviewers set out to discover what the scientific research has to say about their OHS practices. In particular, the researchers wanted to find out how small firms understand and incorporate OHS processes and which OHS programs have an effect on workers’ health and safety.

To do this, the systematic review looked at two types of research studies: qualitative studies and quantitative intervention studies. From an initial pool of over 5,000 articles, the research team — based on a rigorous analysis of both relevance and quality — determined that 14 qualitative studies and five quantitative studies were of sufficient strength to give rise to reliable evidence.

Small business culture shapes OHS needs

What the qualitative studies make clear, says MacEachen, who led the review and the qualitative side of the research, is that small businesses tend to have unique cultures that shape their approach to OHS. Three features in particular are noteworthy, she says.

One, small businesses are characterized by a culture of independence and autonomy — in which owners and front-line workers often work side by side in pursuit of a common goal: the company’s economic survival. As a result, health and safety is seen as the responsibility of each individual, and not mainly of the boss, says MacEachen. This sets the stage for a lack of formal OHS systems and resources in small firms. This informality can lead to owners and workers failing to recognize hazards, and tolerating them more easily when they do.

Two, small workplaces are often governed by fewer or different OHS legislative requirements than large firms. Because there are so many of them, any one small business is rarely subject to safety inspections. The policies and regulations that do apply to them are often designed with larger firms in mind and, therefore, do not “fit” the way small businesses work. Although the idea [behind less stringent requirements] comes from a desire not to strangle small firms with rules and regulations, it can have unintended effects, says MacEachen.

Three, small firms tend to work close to the bone, with a strong focus on “getting the product out.” They rely on few employees and, often, slim profit margins. As a result, a workplace injury that takes a worker out of the workplace is particularly disruptive. It’s often not easy to find a replacement and it’s not easy to keep the job open for the worker while he or she is away, says MacEachen. Indeed, the strain posed by a work injury can lead employers to re-evaluate the value of the worker, in some jurisdictions putting the worker’s continued employment in jeopardy.

Health and safety professionals and policy-makers would be wise to offer OHS support to small businesses that takes these features into account, says MacEachen. In short, the review suggests that, to improve OHS in small businesses, they need support that:

  • helps them understand OHS rules and approaches;
  • accommodates the personal nature of their working relationships and their economic constraints;
  • recognizes their lack of formal OHS systems and resources; and
  • tailors information and services, taking into account their size (e.g., the need for affordability, the informal division of tasks) and their sector.

Practices to improve OHS outcomes

Dr. Curtis Breslin, the scientist who led the quantitative side of the review, bemoans the lack of high quality studies evaluating the effect of OHS interventions on outcomes in small businesses. (Interventions refer to engineering controls, training, safety audits and motivational programs. Outcomes refer to effects on workplace exposures, injury or disability rates, pain levels, behaviours, and attitudes and beliefs.)

The lack of studies means hard-and-fast guidelines about the effectiveness of interventions are not possible. Nonetheless, there was enough evidence to produce some “promising practices,” says Breslin.

One promising practice for small business owners — and the policy-makers and prevention system partners who serve them — is to implement “multiple-component interventions, not just single-component interventions,” says Breslin. In other words, it looks like the best outcomes are achieved when an OHS program is not implemented in isolation, but in combination with other programs.

Other promising practices revealed by the review, says Breslin, include the combined use of training and safety audits, the engineering out of hazards, and the incorporation of motivational components into OHS programs for small business. For example, one high quality study looked at providing financial incentives to small businesses that implement changes stemming from a safety audit, he says.

There is one other piece of important information, says Breslin. The review found no evidence that any intervention led to adverse outcomes. In other words, interventions did not make things worse.

The barriers to small business research

Ultimately, both MacEachen and Breslin would like to see more OHS research focusing on small firms. Breslin acknowledges the feasibility barriers for both intervention researchers and small businesses. For example, it’s easier for researchers to recruit a lot of people from one large company than to recruit a few people from a lot of little companies, he says. It can also be very difficult to get consistent measures across companies, given how different small businesses tend to be from one another.

As for small firms, it might be that they are so over-stretched, and working with so many economic constraints, that it is hard for them to take on anything extra. Research may be seen by small businesses as a non-essential item, says Breslin. These are some possible reasons for why it’s hard to recruit them for a study. He adds that incentives might be needed to get more small businesses involved in intervention studies, such as paying them for taking part.

That said, the systematic review shows that high quality studies in small businesses are possible. We found some good examples, says Breslin. It might take more money and time, but it can be done.

To access the review, visit: