Common beliefs in relation to safety in small business are of two types; a) small businesses are more unsafe, apply unsafe practices, and thus have a higher incidence of occupational injury and a higher average severity of injury, and b) small business have poor knowledge of, and exhibit low compliance with, laws, rules and regulations, and are increasingly difficult to control.
A survey of 100 small business operators in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia was undertaken. Ten different industries - farming, nurseries, fishing, printing, metal manufacturing, concreting, electrical work, cleaning services, cafes and restaurants, women’s hairdressing - were included in the regional sample. The face-to-face conducted interview included questions on educational background, business experience, number and type of staff, own ill health, perceptions of hazards, experience of work-related injury or illhealth in the company, comparison of risks at work with risks outside work, claims experience, knowledge of experience rating system, attitudes to investment in risk-reduction, to safety and productivity, attitudes to the nature of safety problems at work, willingness to pay, decision-making style, relation between debts and assets in the business, recent and future investment in safety, and contacts with government bodies, insurers and OH&S professionals.
Small business operators seemed to know quite well which type of risks they, and their family and staff, are exposed to. Educational background, the long average trade/ business experience, the risk exposure from the practical and hands-on type of work that virtually all owners/managers in this study do, their experience of work-related ill-health and traumatic injury, together with the perceived risks reported from the different industries, support this. When claims cost was checked against size of remuneration it was indicated that there could be a systematic under-reporting of minor-medium claims from small businesses, particularly from businesses smaller than AUD120,000 in remuneration, ie. the typical company-size of this study.
The study generates no real proof that size of an industrial establishment in itself is an important factor for OH&S. Some industrial activities and processes define size - small or large - and the hazards generated in the process, and the actual risk exposure, will explain the incidence and type of occupational trauma and disease. However, some occupational groups, particularly in high-risk areas, tend to under-estimate or be prepared to bear the high inherent health risks of their trade. Concreting is an example in this study. Farmers have a tradition of high risk acceptance, which is combined with a low resource level.
It is crucial for successful approaches to improved work environment and safety in small business to accept that most small business operators have reasonable capacity, knowledge and experience to handle the risks in their own operations. To be relevant and useful to small business, the emphasis of the OH&S information should shift from the legalistic formal administration of safety to the practical solution of typical and high-priority technical risk problems in specific industries. In view of the social characteristics of small business, and their pervasive inclusion of work in family and general life, communication about OH&S in small business should shift its focus from the traditional industrial relations and workers’ compensation arguments to a genuine 24-hour perspective of public and family health.
2003. Vol. 7, no 1