oshaOSHA kicked off the new year by reaffirming its commitment to injury and illness prevention programs (I2P2), in the form of a White Paper that characterizes them as "effective, flexible, commonsense" tools that will help reduce occupational injuries and fatalities and increase productivity.

Backed by examples and numerous studies, the document makes a strong case for I2P2 and addresses objections about cost and complexity which have impeded its acceptance by some sectors of the business community, including small businesses.

An injury and illness prevention program is a proactive process intended to identify and fix workplace hazards before worker injuries, illnesses or fatalities occur. Thirty-four states already require or encourage employers to implement such programs (fifteen of them have mandatory regulations for all or some employers). Additionally, Canada, Australia, Norway, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea and all European Union member states have some form of I2P2 program requirement or incentive.

"The key elements common to all of these programs are management leadership, worker participation, hazard identification and assessment, hazard prevention and control, education and training, and program evaluation and improvement," notes the introduction to the White Paper.

Many companies have already implemented I2P2 programs in their workplaces.

"Not only do these employers experience dramatic decreases in workplace injuries, but they often report a transformed workplace culture that can lead to higher productivity and quality, reduced turnover, reduced costs, and greater employee satisfaction."

Small business I2P2 concerns

In a section entitled, Are Injury and Illness Prevention Programs Too Complicated and Expensive for Small Businesses?, the report concedes that many small businesses might view the task of establishing an I2P2 program as "daunting."

"Any program based on formal structures can be difficult to establish in a small organization because of tight budgets." However, the report's authors argue that simple, low-cost approaches have been shown to be effective in small businesses, and that they are possible because I2P2 programs are highly flexible, with the core elements that can be implemented at a basic level suitable for small businesses, or at a more advanced, structured level in large organizations.

The report cites an Ohio study of small employers that operate exemplary I2P2 programs and found that they experienced sharp reductions in workers' compensation claims, the cost of claims and the lost time per claim over a 12-year period.

"Injury and illness prevention programs are not new, nor are they untested. Most large companies whose safety and health achievements have been recognized through government or industry awards cite their use of injury and illness prevention programs as their key to success."

The cost case

The White Paper takes a cost-versus-benefit approach to I2P2 implementation, listing the financial cost of workplace incidents to both the workers involved (loss of employment and wages,debt, possible lossof home ownership and bankruptcy) and to their employers (compensation paid, business disruptions). The Liberty Mutual Research Institute pegged the cost of disabling workplace injuries in 2008 at $53 billion. The National Academy of Social Insurance estimates the annual workers' compensation benefits paid for injuries and illnesses in 2009 at $58 billion.

Studies on the effectiveness of I2P2 programs cited in the White Paper demonstrate "that such programs are effective in transforming workplace culture; leading to reductions in injuries, illnesses and fatalities; lowering workers’ compensation and other costs; improving morale and communication; enhancing image and reputation; and improving processes, products and services. The studies also highlight important characteristics of effective programs, including management commitment and leadership, effective employee participation, integration of health and safety with business planning and continuous program evaluation.

The White Paper can be viewed in its entirety on the OSHA website.