Small Business: Preventing workplace injuries, illnesses

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Before a trip to the emergency room with an employee is necessary, employers need to be proactive in finding potential hazards before accidents occur and in promoting a safe work environment that includes getting employee buy-in, experts say. Photo Credit: iStock

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Jamie Herzlich Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

Workplace injuries can be crippling to a company, particularly for smaller firms that have fewer resources than their larger counterparts.

Often, an injury or illness not only means lost productivity, but higher worker compensation costs and possibly fines for violating standards of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That's why employers need to be proactive in finding potential hazards before accidents occur and in promoting a safe work environment that includes getting employee buy-in.

"In addition to their social costs, workplace injuries and illnesses have a major impact on an employer's bottom line," says Tony Ciuffo, director of the U.S. Department of Labor's Long Island area OSHA office in Westbury. "It has been estimated that employers pay almost $1 billion per week for direct workers' compensation costs alone."

Other costs include training replacement employees, investigating accidents and implementing corrective measures, plus expenses associated with lower employee morale and absenteeism, he notes.

Creating an injury and illness prevention program can help avoid some of these costs, Ciuffo says. Key elements should include management leadership, worker participation, hazard identification and assessment, hazard prevention and control, education and training, and program evaluation and improvement.

It also pays to have a formal safety policy, advises Mark Reinharz, a labor and employment attorney at Bond, Schoeneck & King in Garden City, whose specialty includes OSHA compliance. The policy should set safety protocols on such things as use of equipment and protective gear, he notes. And there should be a point person in charge to make sure the policy is communicated and followed, Reinharz says, noting it may also be prudent to have a workplace safety expert come in to identify problems.

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OSHA offers a free consultation program to help employers find potential hazards at their worksites, improve their occupational injury and illness prevention programs, and qualify for a one-year exemption from routine OSHA inspections, Ciuffo says.

In addition, some insurance groups offer safety classes to members, says Angelo Garcia, principal industrial hygienist at Future Environment Designs in Syosset, an indoor air quality and industrial hygiene consulting and training firm. For instance, he teaches a 10-hour OSHA construction safety class for Keevily Spero Whitelaw Inc., an insurance services firm in Harrison. Companies "should go for training," Garcia advises.

One of the biggest hazards is slips, trips and falls, he says. Preventive measures include making sure employees wear the right kind of shoes, depending on the industry, and making sure spills are cleaned up.

Falls are not only a hazard for employees, but for the public, too, depending upon the business, notes William Marletta, owner of William Marletta Safety Consultants in West Islip. Check stairs and ramps, he says. "These are the easiest to correct and the most often overlooked," he says. "A lot of this isn't rocket science."

It's important to get your employees together and do a self-inspection of your store or business periodically, Marletta recommends. Make a list of things that need to be rectified, from a missing fire extinguisher to a faulty outlet.

It's "about changing the culture of the organization," adds Wes Scott, consulting services director for the Itasca, Illinois-based National Safety Council. "It takes everybody's efforts."

It involves treating employees as "subject matter experts," because they do know their jobs, he says, and if an injury occurs, paying heed and taking preventive measures.

"When an injury occurs, it is a lesson learned," Scott says.

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