NIOSH has led a research program focused on small business safety and health for more than two decades because we know workers in small businesses are injured and killed on the job at a higher rate than workers in larger businesses. Over the years, we have expanded our research focus from identifying small businesses in high-risk sectors to understanding how community networks affect worker safety and health. Small businesses often have limited resources, and we must adapt our efforts and create solutions that are accessible in these economic situations. Although these organizations are small, they can make a big impact on the well-being of the people they employ.
What do we mean by small?
A “small” business is defined in many ways. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 99.7% of all U.S. firms are considered small businesses, with fewer than 500 employees (Narrowing the distinction further, just over one-third (34%) of the U.S. workforce is employed by a business with fewer than 100 employees.
For discussions of workplace safety and health and for research purposes, the NIOSH Small Business Assistance Program considers small businesses as having fewer than 50 employees. NIOSH researchers have also found that other than number of employees, it is important to consider factors such as age of the business, structure of the ownership, and availability of resources for workplace safety and health.
Solutions for Small Business
We know in many cases, businesses are starting smaller and staying smaller, and given that small businesses often lack safety and health professionals, the need for simple and inexpensive ways to assure safe and healthful working conditions (e.g., Total Worker Health and hazard control banding) is increasingly important. Apps like the NIOSH Ladder Safety app take a lot of the guesswork out of how to identify hazards and protect workers. Tools that work for small businesses—designed for convenience and ease of use—help everyone. Small business needs can drive safety solutions to cost less and to be more effective.
While NIOSH continues to lead a research agenda focused on small business safety and health needs, we recognize that no single organization can effectively reach the millions of small businesses that could benefit from assistance. That is why we have expanded our research agenda to include a specific focus on understanding the role of intermediaries. Intermediaries might be organizations already engaging small businesses in occupational safety and health assistance, looking for new ways to engage small firms, or already well-connected to a small business network. The range of intermediaries includes suppliers of goods and services (equipment/material suppliers, insurance companies, legal and financial advisors, health providers), membership organizations (trade associations, chambers of commerce), education organizations (community colleges, vocational schools), and government agencies. Some of our colleagues at NIOSH Total Worker Health Centers of Excellence—including the Healthier Workforce Center of the Midwest and the Center for Health, Work & Environment at the Colorado School of Public Health—are making great advances in this line of research.
Moving the Small Business Safety and Health Research Agenda Forward
NIOSH and the Center for Health, Work & Environment at the Colorado School of Public Health are hosting the fourth international Understanding Small Enterprise (USE) Conference in Denver, Colorado, on October 25–27. This event represents a culmination of two decades of our small business research agenda and an opportunity to generate new ideas through collaboration with world experts, entrepreneurs, and small business leaders that are creating safe and healthy workplaces. We encourage small business leaders, researchers, safety and health professionals, and all those who share an interest in creating safe and healthy small workplaces to join us and be part of the conversation to move worker well-being and sustainable business health from ideas to achievable reality.