Happy Small Business Week! The Small Business Administration is hosting events across the country. While many of the gatherings are focused on various aspects of entrepreneurism, we at NIOSH wanted to share some thoughts on workplace safety.
Public health organizations want to provide small businesses with health and safety resources. Small business owners want a healthful and safe workplace. It sounds like a good deal, but there are two problems.
Problem 1: With such a large number of small businesses nationwide (79% of US firms have fewer than 100 employees), it’s impossible for public health organizations (whether it’s NIOSH, OSHA, a state health department, or others) to reach all of them. Even when they do, the tools they provide may not be right for small businesses.
Problem 2: Small businesses aren’t small solely because they have fewer people. They also have limited resources to dedicate to non-production parts of the business. They tend to be isolated from peer networks. They are less likely to be inspected. Injuries are often attributed to bad luck or other external causes.
Public health organizations need to create useful products that are specific to small businesses’ needs, and they need a way to reach these firms. Small business owners need to have useful, practical safety solutions, an understanding of hazards in their line of work, and professional connections that emphasize safety.
The key to solving these problems is having a go-between—an intermediary organization that has connections to small businesses and can share health and safety information with them. Intermediaries can be occupational health service providers, insurance companies, labor unions, accountants, chambers of commerce, retailers, and suppliers, just to name a few.
All three groups, public health initiators (like NIOSH), intermediaries, and small business owners, are part of a social exchange. When people—or organizations—interact, they expect reciprocity. They look for mutual benefit: each side needs to find value in what the other side offers. If the costs outweigh the benefits or the relationship is parasitic, the social exchange will end.
In our scenario, all three groups can find value in the exchange. Small businesses win because they are able to get vital safety help that would otherwise be too resource-intensive. Workplace safety can translate into dollars and cents for them—not just the obvious benefit of a lack of illness, injury, and death.
Public health initiators win because they are able to fulfill a legally mandated mission in a meaningful way.
For intermediaries, the benefit of providing health and safety help can be more obscure. But there are many ways that receiving public health information from initiators and sharing it with businesses can be valuable.
- Chambers of commerce and other groups encouraging membership can offer greater value to their members and attract new members by adding health and safety workshops to their programming.
- Suppliers and retailers can provide better, more valuable service to customers if they understand and can advise on safety features for the products they sell.
- Industry publications can fill column (or screen) inches with safety information or instruction, which can generate extra advertising dollars.
- Insurance companies can offer or at least encourage safety training to prevent injuries or illnesses that would lead to claims (and may be able to offer reduced rates to adequately credentialed businesses).
- Occupational health service providers can develop packages that are specific to small business needs. (Small business owners often perceive consultations as being too technical, expensive, and limited.)
Small business owners want a safe environment, but with so many other concerns, safety becomes a lower priority. Public health organizations want to improve safety broadly, but struggle to reach individual firms. If intermediaries can see the advantages, the added value, of linking the health initiator and business, they are ideally situated to give and receive in the social exchange.
The NIOSH Small Business Assistance and Outreach Program recognizes the key role of intermediaries in helping small businesses do better in workplace safety and health. We have focused our research and outreach efforts on better understanding the factors that create and sustain valuable workplace safety and health exchanges among small businesses and the intermediary organizations that serve them. For more information see the NIOSH Small Business Topic Page which includes a Small Business Resource Guide .
If you are a small business owner, what would help with your workplace health and safety efforts? For intermediaries that have promoted safety and health, what benefits have you seen?
Thomas Cunningham, PhD, and Garrett Burnett, MS, MBA
Dr. Cunningham is a behavioral scientist in the NIOSH Education and Information Division and the coordinator for the NIOSH Small Business Assistance and Outreach Program.
Mr. Burnett is a health communications fellow in the NIOSH Communications and Research Translation Office and the assistant coordinator for the NIOSH Small Business Assistance and Outreach Program.
Sinclair, R., Cunningham, T. R., & Schulte, P. (2013). A model for occupational safety and health intervention in small businesses. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 56 (12), 1442-1451.