OHS Canada Magazine

What every small business needs to know about keeping workers safe and healthy

February 2, 2024
By Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS)
Health & Safety ccohs Small Business

Photo: Getty Images

Small businesses (those with one to 99 paid employees) are big players in Canada’s economy. According to the most recent report by the Government of Canada (2022), there were 1.21 million employer businesses in Canada, of which 1.19 million (97.9 percent) were small businesses.

But don’t let the word “small” fool you – in Canada, 8.2 million people were employed by small businesses as of 2021. Between 2020 and 2021, these businesses were also responsible for 69 percent of the net employment change in the private sector, adding approximately 494,300 new jobs in the country.

New jobs mean new responsibilities for these small businesses, some of which can differ in scope depending on where in Canada the business operates. However, when it comes to health and safety, the employer is always responsible for creating a healthy and safe working environment – no matter where the business is located or its size.

Starting with the basics: policies and committees

Small business owners have a lot on their to-do list. Responsibilities like hiring and onboarding, marketing, compliance, and financial requirements all top that list, but even with all those to-do’s, health and safety needs to be a priority.

Although health and safety requirements vary in each jurisdiction, there are some common rules and rights that apply to all workplaces across the country. By knowing what they are, businesses of all sizes can apply them to their workplace to create a healthy and safe work environment and ensure compliance with health and safety legislation.


Let’s start with step one: having a health and safety policy in place.

According to Canadian health and safety legislation, a written health and safety policy is a must for all employers. It defines your organization’s commitment and approach to maintaining a safe and healthy workplace, and it supports the promotion of your health and safety program — which leads us to the next part: who’s responsible for implementing the policy?

Answer: ultimately the employer, but all workplace parties play a role.

Let’s start with your health and safety committee. This committee helps to promote a culture of safety within a workplace. Made up of workers from both non-management and management roles, they put policy into action.
This means your committee is involved with identifying workplace hazards and making recommendations to control the risks of those hazards. Are employees working in ergonomically correct positions? Do staff know the safety protocols for operating or working near machinery? Do workers know how civility and respect is defined and practiced at work? To assess the safety of a workplace, committees should meet on a regular basis. This gives the committee the opportunity to be proactive, allowing them to respond to health and safety issues, conduct workplace inspections, and develop health and safety programs all in a timely and efficient manner.

Does your workplace require a committee?

Not every business is required to have a health and safety committee. If that’s the case for your business, you might need a health and safety representative instead.

This depends on how many employees you have and where your business operates.
For example, Ontario laws mandate businesses with 6 to 19 employees to have a health and safety representative, but in British Columbia, that number is between 10 to 19.

Committees may also be required when other conditions apply to a workplace even without the specified number of employees. To find out what’s right for your business, always check with the health and safety legislation within your jurisdiction.

Establishing safe work procedures

Even though a business may be small in numbers, its safe work procedures don’t have to be diminished in size or quality.

Keep workers safe from day one by providing the appropriate training, like safe working procedures, WHMIS or new worker training and orientations, practicing good housekeeping (like tidying up used materials), and ensuring that workers understand the workplace harassment and violence policy, including who to turn to if they need a safe person to speak to.

It’s also important to create and communicate an emergency response plan. Put one in place so workers know how to respond to the unexpected: fires, spills, structural failures, severe changes in weather, and events like pandemics.

Ensure that workers know the first aid measures that are in place, the procedures for when an incident or injury occurs, and where to go for support. Everyone needs to be aware of who the first aid attendant is as well as other important contacts. Always have a minimum of the following on any worksite: an appropriately stocked first aid kit, information for employees about what to do in case of an injury or incident, and someone who knows how to administer first aid. These requirements will vary depending on the type of workplace and number of employees, so always check

By implementing procedures and other preventative measures, and reporting and investigating incidents, near misses, or hazards, you can prevent hazardous occurrences.

Working toward health and safety, together

Health and safety are the responsibility of both the employer and workers. Employers must provide a safe and healthy workplace, and workers must follow the practices and procedures that have been established. Part of this responsibility means that both parties understand the three rights of workers: the right to know, the right to participate, and the right to refuse.

The right to know outlines that workers have the right to be informed of potential or known hazards and are provided with the appropriate information before the work begins. This is where training comes in.

Central to any health and safety program is educating employees on workplace hazards and providing the appropriate training on a regular basis to perform their tasks safely.

Tip: Has your small business grown, resulting in the hiring of new employees? Make sure new hires receive orientation training to establish a strong health and safety foundation right from the start.

The next two rights are about worker participation and involvement and the right to refuse work they perceive is unsafe.

Workers have the right to provide input on the steps their employer takes to ensure a healthy and safe workplace, and they also have the right to refuse work if they have reason to believe it’s unsafe or dangerous to themselves or others.

Each jurisdiction will have a slightly different definition, and criteria and procedures for refusing unsafe work. Although the intent is the same, understanding and implementing these rights is one of the reasons why health and safety committees or representatives are critical for businesses, no matter the size.

The bottom line

Under Canadian occupational health and safety legislation, it’s the employer’s duty to take all reasonable and practicable measures necessary to protect the health and safety of their workers.

This means employers must prepare, review, and maintain health and safety policies, plans, procedures, and practices, establish a committee or representative, respond to their recommendations, and provide information, instruction, and supervision to ensure employee health and safety.

While this might seem like a lot of work for a small business owner, it doesn’t have to be onerous.

For example, you can include safety updates on your staff meeting agendas. Displaying health and safety memos and infographics are another great way to visually communicate health and safety information, and for written communication, like a newsletter or email to staff, add a health and safety section. These actions demonstrate your efforts and commitment to creating a safer environment for your employees.

Prioritizing safety comes with business benefits, too: improved productivity, a boost to employee morale, protection against business interruptions, improved reliability, and greater public perception, just to name a few.

The bottom line is that it makes good sense to prioritize workplace health and safety, no matter the size of your business. By educating yourself and your workers, you can create an environment that your workers deserve – a safe one.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes the total well-being — physical, psychosocial, and mental health — of workers in Canada by providing information, advice, education, and management systems and solutions that support the prevention of injury and illness. Visit www.ccohs.ca for more safety tips.


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