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Small businesses facing big challenges: managing dangerous substances as an SME

Small business owners often have the responsibility for every aspect of running a business; from operations to managing suppliers, tax rules, consumer rights, data protection, insurance and HR issues, to name a few. Ensuring that workers are protected when exposed to hazardous materials may not be top of the agenda. Here are some easy steps small businesses can take to keep workers safe and healthy.

© EU-OSHA/Dominic Wigley

Chemical use in small businesses

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of the European economy; 66% of all employees in Europe work in businesses with less than 250 staff members. Working in a small firm may involve exposure to dangerous substances – but this may not always be obvious. For example, businesses that have cleaning agents, dust, paints, glues, printing equipment or engine exhausts in their presence could be a threat to workers.

Small businesses often work with limited resources, meaning that there may be gaps in the knowledge and training of staff. Despite the fact that according to the 2014 European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks, 33% of workers in businesses with between 5 and 9 employees report that they are exposed to dangerous substances at work, many are unaware of the full extent of the risk. Indeed, in a survey of small firms in the UK, most respondents didn’t consider chemical substances as dangerous. 64% of workers said that chemical products pose little to no risk to health, and just 8% identified the risk as high. Raising awareness of the key issues and establishing concrete occupational safety and health (OSH) measures can help to reduce the risk to workers.

Understanding the risks

The first step in controlling the threats posed by dangerous substances is to gain a full picture of the extent of the risk. This can be done by creating a risk assessment (including a chemical audit), listing where and how workers could be exposed to chemicals, which chemicals could be present, and the level of risk they represent. The information should be recorded in a chemical inventory, using Safety Data Sheets to provide details of the hazardous effects of each substance.

Reducing the hazard

Creating a risk assessment for chemical substances is a legal obligation, but it can also be used to find out which substances can be limited, substituted or eliminated to reduce the exposure to workers. A good example of this comes from a cleaning firm in Estonia, which, following a risk assessment, was able to limit its cleaning products to just 3; 2 of which contained dangerous substances in small quantities and 1 that contained a substance considered not harmful by the EU.
Other measures can include determining concrete technical and hygiene arrangements. For example:

  • using filling and/or refilling equipment to avoid spills and exposure;
  • keeping meal and wash facilities separate from the working environment;
  • disposing of waste properly;
  • implementing emergency procedures (such as eyewash or emergency shower facilities);
  • providing PPE for workers.

Spreading the message

There are three pillars of effective OSH regulation – competent employer engagement, state regulation and worker participation. However, in order to fulfil this last point, workers must be aware of the risks and – especially in a small business – this requires effective, easy and clear communication. Many small businesses prefer a verbal culture over a written culture, so in-person training might be more beneficial to workers. If written materials are shared, safety instructions should be as simple, direct and engaging as possible.

The nature of working in a small business may mean that controlling exposure to dangerous substances can often be an afterthought. However, by taking several easy steps and communicating clearly with staff, small business owners can greatly reduce the risk. If you run a small business that uses dangerous substances but are unsure of your legal obligations, or indeed the level of risk for workers, then you can use our handy e-tool to find out more. The tool will provide all the information you need to effectively manage dangerous substances in the workplace.

For more information on managing dangerous substances, visit the Healthy Workplaces Campaign website. You can also keep up-to-date by following it on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, using the hashtag #EUhealthyworkplaces.