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Being Pals with the Boss Is Bad for Your Health

The lines of responsibility are often blurred when it comes to workplace safety in small firms. Clarify roles to avoid costly errors.

Does your small company struggle to support employee health and safety? Despite small firms having limited resources and access to information, a new study by Danish researchers suggests that health and safety outcomes in smaller firms are more heavily influenced by employer-employee relationships.

Peter Hasle, of Denmark’s National Research Centre for the Working Environment, and colleagues interviewed owner-managers of 23 small firms in the metal and construction industries. They asked owner-managers’ to speak to their knowledge of regulations, attitudes toward compliance, perceptions of risk and responsibility, and actual incidents of employee injury or harm.

“Compliance is a Drag”

Owner-managers expressed support for occupational health and safety and a desire to meet prevailing standards and norms. Having said this, many were of the opinion that health and safety compliance was indeed an onerous task and burden.

When asked who is responsible for employees’ health and safety, only seven of the 23 interviewees (30 per cent) spoke primarily of the owner-manager being in charge. The remainder felt that the responsibility for employee health and safety rested with the employees themselves, or a combination of the two. This finding is significant because Danish law places the responsibility for health and safety primarily on the employer.

“Unpreventable” Accidents

Although metal and construction represent relatively high-risk sectors, owner-managers generally perceived safety risks to be low, believing the safeguards they had in place, combined with training and care exercised by employees made for a negligible level of risk. They expressed this view even in reference to safety incidents that had already occurred, tending to describe them as ‘unpreventable.’ Owner-managers also seemed largely unconcerned with long-term risks, such as the effect of exposure to toxic substances.

Based on each owner-manager’s responses, the researchers placed the 23 companies into the following four categories:

1. Avoid safety issues.

The researchers described four cases (17 per cent) that appeared to completely ignore health and safety issues as “avoidant.”

2. Safety is a necessary evil.

Three cases (13 per cent) viewed attention to a safe working environment as “a necessary evil.” Their motivation for addressing health and safety was primarily to avoid issues with regulatory authorities. Compliance was mostly viewed as a burden.

3. Standards must be met.

Fourteen cases (61 per cent) took the approach that “standards must be met”; these companies sought to appear responsible to employees and other stakeholders by complying with standards and norms. Only half of the owner-managers in this “standards met” category, however, expressed the opinion that health and safety is primarily the employer’s responsibility.

4. Safety as a business strategy.

Only two of the firms (9 per cent) fell into the category labeled “business strategy”; for these few companies, employee health and safety was viewed proactively as an important element of the firm’s success.

Small Firms, Close Relationships

Working relationships in larger firms may be distant, transactional, or control-oriented, whereas working relationships in small companies tend to be more personal. In small companies, employers and employees often know each other better (they may even be family members) and work together closely. As a result of these close relationships, owner-managers in smaller firms may try to appear more caring and egalitarian. They may also provide greater autonomy to their employees out of respect for their knowledge and skills.

Too Close for Comfort… and Safety

Regrettably, however, this emphasis on trust and autonomy reduces the extent to which managers take responsibility for safe working conditions. When a workplace incident occurs, it collides with the owner-manager’s view of himself as a caring employer. He interprets the incident as an unforeseeable accident for which he, the employer, bears no responsibility – rather than as a preventable incident related to workplace safety.

Responsibility Reality Checks

The key to improving occupational health and safety in your small businesses may lie in making a conscious adjustments to your own self-image as a business owner. In addition to teaching managers about safety legislation and risk management, industry associations and regulatory bodies should remind leadership of the role they play in workplace safety, and that they are not entirely absolved of the responsibility to provide a safe and healthy work environment.

Hasle, P., Limborg, H.J., Kallehave, T., Klitgaard, C., and Andersen, T.R. 2011. “The Working Environment in Small Firms: Responses from Owner-Managers.International Small Business Journal. 306.6: 622–39.

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