The U.S. economy is improving and unemployment rates are nearly back to pre-recession levels.

This economic upswing has intensified an already competitive labor market where job vacancies and the inability to hire quickly can have negative business impacts, such as lost productivity and lower-quality work. 

Although many factors motivate job seekers, small businesses may especially feel the labor pinch because they likely can’t compete with big-business perks and benefits.

However, a new survey of small business employees conducted by EMPLOYERS reveals that small business owners may be underselling an important factor that could give them the edge when recruiting new workers: a safe workplace. Surprisingly, small business employees said workplace safety was more important to them than other things, such as the quality of potential coworkers and opportunities for growth.

Small businesses employ nearly half of the U.S. workforce, and in today’s tight labor market, it’s important that employers recognize that a safe working environment is a top priority for current employees. It’s also key to attracting and retaining new workers.

Here are six things business owners can do to improve safety in the workplace:

1. Create a culture of safety

A safety culture starts at the top. Business owners and managers need to commit to maintaining a safe working environment and model the behavior they wish to see in their staff. A safety culture is the way people think, feel and interact in relation to safety. It’s more than just policies and procedures; it’s woven into a business’s core values. Small business owners should demonstrate their commitment to safety with all employees, from discussing it during the interview process to keeping it top of mind with staff by conducting regular safety meetings and training.

Small business owners should demonstrate their commitment to safety with all employees, from discussing it during the interview process to keeping it top of mind with staff by conducting regular safety meetings and training.

Related: Atlanta Hawk: How Cherokee County, Ga.’s HR manager created a culture of safety

2. Identify and assess potential hazards

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), one of the root causes of workplace injuries and illnesses is the failure to recognize potential hazards. An important part of creating an effective safety and health program is taking the time to identify and assess potential safety risks. Steps include:

  • Asking employees to share their safety concerns. Front-line staff may witness potential risks that back of house staff or management may fail to notice;
  • Conducting a walkthrough to identify new or recurring hazards, like spilled liquids, frayed electrical cords or open containers of hazardous chemicals;
  • Investigating recent injuries, illnesses or “close calls” to identify the root cause of the hazard and what steps can be or should have been taken to prevent an incident.
  • Fixing “on the spot” hazards as soon as they’re discovered, such as tripping hazards or wet flooring.

Related: 10 ways to reduce slips, trips and falls in your business

3. Develop a safety and health program

Work-related injuries and illnesses can lead to increased costs for businesses, including potentially higher workers’ compensation insurance premiums and decreased productivity. According to OSHA, an effective safety and health program can save a business owner $4 to $6 for every $1 invested. It can also reduce injuries and illnesses, improve employee morale and increase productivity. The safety and health program should be customized to fit the company size and industry and blend with current operations. 

Related: Keeping aging workers safe on the job

Woman in hard hat holding sign safety training with coworkers

(Photo: iStock)

4. Provide safety and health training and education

The EMPLOYERS survey also revealed that 17% of small business employees say they never receive workplace safety training. That number is even higher — 25% — for micro-businesses, or those with nine or fewer employees. Smaller businesses may not have the luxury of dedicated in-house risk management resources. In fact, because many small business owners often wear many hats, from manager to bookkeeper to safety trainer, it can be difficult to make safety a priority. But the impact of just one serious workplace injury can be catastrophic for the injured employee as well as the family, coworkers and employer.

Business owners and managers should make sure to review training procedures with all new employees, especially less-experienced workers, and provide regular refresher courses throughout the year. It’s important to remind employees not only what the company’s safety requirements are, but also why they need to be followed. Additionally, managers should involve staff in finding solutions and establishing procedures to help prevent future hazards.

Related: Nations Roof: Workers’ comp reaches a new level

5. Comply with OSHA safety signage regulations

The EMPLOYERS survey found that 40% of employees say their employer doesn’t display OSHA signage or that they don’t know where to find it. OSHA requires that businesses prominently display its “Job Safety and Health: It’s the Law” poster, which informs employees of their rights under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Additionally, OSHA regulations specify that caution signs must be used to warn against potential hazards or unsafe practices. OSHA also regulates the safety and design of the signs.

Related: Butterball’s winning workers’ comp journey — from farm to table

6. Enforce and evaluate

An important part of making safety a top priority is that efforts are never “done.” Employers should be vigilant about making sure staff follow policies and procedures. Managers should routinely review safety and health programs and make adjustments as new hazards are identified, then be sure all staff members are informed of and understand the additions and updates.

By making safety a key component of business operations, employers can realize many benefits, including increased productivity, improved employee morale and reduced costs associated with workers’ compensation claims. A safe workplace may also tip the scales for employees who are evaluating competing job offers.

Related: Workplace safety and weed at work

David Quezada is vice president of loss control service, for Reno, Nevada-based Employers Holdings Inc., a small-business and workers’ compensation insurer. He can be reached at