How do small businesses implement health and safety processes?

In brief

  • Small businesses differ from larger firms in their work relationships, understanding of workplace risk, and legal requirements related to health and safety.
  • A lack of resources and informal work relationships can prevent focused attention on occupational health and safety (OHS) needs in small firms.

Published: January 2010

Why was this review done?

Small businesses face unique workplace health problems. However, not enough is known about the particular risks inherent in small businesses. Designing OHS interventions for small businesses can be difficult. Our systematic review investigates some of the challenges to health and safety in small businesses and suggests potential solutions.

How was the review done?

This systematic review of qualitative literature was part of a larger mixed-method review, which combined quantitative and qualitative research. The review team limited the literature search to qualitative articles and quantitative intervention studies published in peer-reviewed journals before February, 2008. The qualitative studies focused on the way that workplace parties in businesses with 100 or fewer employees understand and implement occupational health and safety processes.

What did the researchers find?

Researchers selected 14 qualitative studies from an initial pool of 5,067 qualitative and quantitative intervention studies. The findings showed how small businesses understand workplace hazards, manage risk, and engage with workplace health policies. For example, workers and employers in small businesses were found to downplay risks as “par for course,” and to use health practices that would accommodate workplace and customer needs as well as the workplace’s limited resources. Two conclusions stood out: informal work relationships can prevent employees from anticipating and managing risk; and complex contractual arrangements like subcontracting can complicate the OHS responsibilities of small businesses.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

This review benefited from a large review team of experienced researchers. However, the literature search was limited to studies that clearly identified the firm size as 100 or fewer employees. Studies that were less specific about firm size were omitted but might have yielded relevant information.