HR Tip of the Week

Posted on  |  Workplace safety

Workplace Safety: Key Responsibilities for Small Businesses

Industrial workers in a factory with hard hats

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) requires covered employers to maintain a workplace that is free from recognized hazards. The OSH Act also:

  • Includes specific rules for various workplace situations and industries, addressing issues such as personal protective equipment, hazard communication, and emergency preparedness.
  • Covers most private sector employers and their workers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and other U.S. jurisdictions either directly through the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or through an OSHA-approved state program.
  • Applies to work performed by an employee in any workplace within the United States, including a remote workplace. 

The following are several key areas to know, and the employer responsibilities regarding workplace safety.

General duty clause and standards

When it comes to creating and maintaining a safe workplace, there are guidelines and standards to follow. Employers should ensure they:

  • Provide a workplace free from serious recognized hazards. All employers have the responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace that is free from serious recognized hazards. This is commonly known as the General Duty Clause. To prove a violation of the General Duty Clause, OSHA must demonstrate that:
    • The employer failed to maintain its workplace free from a hazard to which employees were exposed;
    • The hazard was recognized in the industry;
    • The hazard was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and
    • There was a feasible and useful way to correct the hazard.
  • Comply with applicable standards issued under the OSH Act or OSHA-approved state program. Over the years, OSHA has implemented dozens of standards (or rules) governing workplace safety, many of which cover specific industries, work environments, or hazards. Employers must examine workplace conditions to make sure they conform to applicable OSHA standards. OSHA-approved state programs must have standards at least as strong as federal OSHA’s, but some are more stringent.
  • Make sure employees have and use safe tools and equipment and that you properly maintain this equipment. Keep in mind many OSHA standards require employers to provide personal protective equipment, when it is necessary to protect employees from job-related injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. With few exceptions, employers must pay for personal protective equipment when it is used to comply with OSHA standards. 
  • Use color codes, posters, labels or signs to warn employees of potential hazards.
  • Establish or update operating procedures and communicate them so that employees follow safety and health requirements.
  • Consider adopting a safety and health program. Many states have requirements or voluntary guidelines for workplace safety and health programs. Most successful safety and health programs are based on a common set of key elements. These include management leadership, worker participation, and a systematic approach to finding and fixing hazards.

Training employees

Training and helping ensure employees are provided with the information needed to have a safe workplace is another key area. As an employer, you must provide safety training in a language and vocabulary workers can understand.

Many of the OSHA standards expressly require the employer to train employees in the safety and health aspects of their jobs. Keep in mind other OSHA standards make it the employer's responsibility to limit certain job assignments to employees who are "certified," "competent" or "qualified" — meaning that they have had special previous training, in or out of the workplace.

Four examples of OSHA's training requirements are listed below:

  • Emergency action plan: Employers required by an OSHA regulation to have an emergency action plan must train a sufficient number of employees to assist in safe and orderly emergency evacuation (see 29 CFR 1910.38).
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Employers must provide training to any employee required by OSHA regulations to wear PPE. For details on PPE training requirements see 29 CFR 1910.132 and 29 CFR 1910.134.
  • Hazard communication: Employers with hazardous chemicals in the workplace must provide employees with effective training at the time of their initial assignment and whenever a new chemical hazard is introduced into their work area. For detailed training requirements see 29 CFR 1910.1200.
  • First aid: If an infirmary, clinic or hospital isn't close to the workplace, the employer must ensure that one or more individuals are adequately trained to provide first aid (see 29 CFR 1910.151).

Hazard communication, recordkeeping and posting requirements

Employers must also ensure they properly communicate and post certain safety information, and maintain and provide any records required. Here are some key things to do:

  • If there are hazardous chemicals in the workplace, employers must develop and implement a written hazard communication program and train employees on the hazards they are exposed to and proper precautions (and a copy of safety data sheets must be readily available).
  • Post, at a prominent location within the workplace, the OSHA poster (or the state-plan equivalent) informing employees of their rights and responsibilities.
  • Report to the nearest OSHA office all work-related fatalities within 8 hours, and all work-related inpatient hospitalizations, all amputations and all losses of an eye within 24 hours.
  • Keep records of work-related injuries and illnesses. Employers with 10 or fewer employees and employers in certain low-hazard industries are exempt from this requirement.
  • Provide employees, former employees and their representatives access to the Log of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses (OSHA Form 300). On February 1 each year, and for three months, covered employers must post the summary of the OSHA log of injuries and illnesses (OSHA Form 300A). Employers with 10 or fewer employees and employers in certain low-hazard industries are exempt from this requirement.
  • Provide access to employee medical records and exposure records to employees or their authorized representatives.

Complaints and citations

If you do have a safety incident in the workplace, it is very important to ensure you take the correct actions. Below are key pieces of guidance and some requirements to know and follow:

  • Refrain from discriminating against employees who exercise their rights under the OSH Act. Employers are prohibited from retaliating against workers for raising concerns about safety and health conditions.
  • Post OSHA citations at or near the work area involved. Each citation must remain posted until the violation has been corrected, or for three working days, whichever is longer. Post abatement verification documents or tags.
  • Correct cited violations by the deadline set in the OSHA citation and submit required abatement verification documentation.


Workplace hazards can lead to hefty fines, result in missed workdays for employees, and lead to higher workers' compensation costs. Therefore, make sure you:

  • Understand the safety rules that apply to your business (consider state, local and industry requirements as well).
  • Consider developing a safety plan and/or forming a safety committee.
  • Analyze your workplace and eliminate or control recognized hazards.
  • Provide employees with safety training.
  • Investigate all safety-related incidents, including near misses.

    Most popular