How to put safety first in your business

For small business owners, keeping on top of Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) requirements can feel like yet another regulatory burden to add to the pile.

However, there’s nothing more important than providing a safe working environment for yourself and your team. The risks of not doing so - in all types of workplaces from home offices to cafes and factories - are too big to ignore.

“Bad safety goes straight to profitability," says Andrew Douglas, Principal, Workplace Relations, Macpherson Kelley. "The second loss is disruption and the third is, of course, reputation."

Every industry has different OH&S risks, with many examples provided by WorkSafe Victoria. Your team could be handling hazardous chemicals, or be exposed to dangerous fire. People may need to climb ladders to retrieve heavy goods, or could be seated at ill-fitting desks. And overwork, excessive stress and being the victim of workplace bullying can also cause damage.

“People say, 'My business is safe because I’ve never had an incident', but I see that is so incredibly untrue after 30 years of legal practice,” Douglas says.

The good news is there’s no need to be overwhelmed by OH&S requirements. Here are some expert tips to get you on track.

A safe workplace is important no matter what industry your business is in

A safe work place is appealing to employees

OH&S made simple

Michael Selinger, Partner in Workplace Relations at Holding Redlich Lawyers, says the simplest way to stay on top of OH&S is to “take all reasonable and practicable steps to ensure the safety of your staff."

He says this involves going through every part of your business to assess the current and potential risks, starting with machine risks then human error risks:

Machine risks: “This involves engineering controls on equipment, such as a guillotine that could slice a finger, or a machine that could trap a hand." He says to put in place physical controls, such as barriers to block unauthorised access to machines, or bollards to block storeroom forklift traffic.

Human error risks: “For manual handling, put in controls to do things in a safe way. Don’t allow people to lift full boxes, rather pack the boxes half full. Train and instruct your staff.”

SafeWork SA offers a great deal of information on how to manage workplace safety risks, covering everything from identifying hazards, to assessing and controlling risks.

Leadership matters

Once you've identified and reduced risks, building an ongoing culture of safety is ideal, Selinger suggests. And this must start from the top.

“Safety leadership is the most important part of building a safety culture. Demonstrate how it’s done, implement safety policies and walk the talk. How you respond when people don’t follow procedures is key," he says.

Safe Work Australia says safety leadership involves:

- a commitment to safety

- getting involved

- encouraging participation

- making workplace health and safety core to your business

- and reviewing your safety performance.

Also build a "culture of reporting”, Seligner adds. “No change can take place if people aren’t reporting on issues.”

Small business owners need to identify and manage workplace safety risks

Focus on machine and human error risks

Don’t forget mental health

In addition to physical safety, you need to prevent any mental health and wellbeing risks to your employees. WorkSafe Victoria describes work-related stress as the “physical, mental, emotional and behavioural reactions of team members who perceive that their work-demands exceed their abilities and/or resources to cope and do their work."

Douglas says as organisations become more technology focused, job requirements change and ‘agile’ working grows, the constant changes can “cause a real spike in mental health claims."

“Employees can be grieving the loss of what they had before,” he says.

Leaders need to be aware of the impact of changes on people, respond quickly to any incidents reported (such as bullying), and aim to build people’s capabilities to adapt through coaching and mentoring.

Get the right insurance

Even if you build a great culture of safety, things can go wrong, so insurance is a must. Compensation insurance generally covers payments if team members are unable to work due to a work-related injury or ill health, as well as covering medical costs and rehabilitation expenses. You can find links to the schemes offered by each state on Safe Work Australia.

Continual assessment is key

As workplaces change, hazards change, and so too should your approach to OH&S, Douglas says.

“Report against risk consistently, keep your mind open and be nimble, and start to see what works and what doesn’t work,” Douglas says.

If you need more convincing of the benefits of prioritising safety, Douglas says it can be a great opportunity to review processes and improve productivity at the same time. And even better, a safety-first culture makes you more competitive in the market for talent.

“Companies with great safety are attractive to great employees,” he says.

For more information

Selinger says there’s an enormous amount information available to help, and he recommends looking at some model codes of practice. Officeworks offers a series of Training Services that could assist, such as Warden and Evacuation Training, First Aid Training, and Safety for Leaders Training.






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