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When first starting out in business, the temptation can be to run headlong into making your product and your brand as popular as possible and just hoping that the “non-business” issues (such as safety) will iron themselves out. As a result, it is far too often the case that some startups forget about workplace safety altogether. This is surprising when you consider that startups don’t tend to have many employees so implementing safety protocols should be easier. However, it is not surprising when you consider that a person’s motivation for starting a business is rarely “to make the world’s safest workplace”.
Still, safer businesses make more money. OSHA, the government health and safety board of the US, estimate that businesses can save anywhere between US$4 and US$6 for every US$1 spent on safety. Fresh startups need to realise this fact fast if they want to be taken seriously as they grow.
But I’ve only got five employees!
If you’re a startup, then your total number of staff is probably tiny. Perhaps even so tiny that you can count them on one hand. Heck, some of them could even be family members, or friends so close that they feel like family. Yet, if you want your business to grow, you will eventually begin working with new people. Once they’re on the payroll, certain rules begin to apply. These rules differ from country to country, but it may surprise you how few employees you need to have before you need to follow certain government health and safety regulations.
In the UK, having five employees or more means that you need to write up a risk assessment and a health and safety policy. In the US, laws vary from state to state but, on a federal level, there are many regulations that apply to businesses consisting of just one or more person. And in South Africa, health and safety laws apply to all business and to all self-employed people. To be on the safe side, your best bet is to follow all health and safety regulation regardless of the size of your business or where it’s based.
Structure, discipline, and motivation
Structure, discipline and motivation are always important in business, but they are especially important for startups. Entrepreneur Grail Noble’s advice is “think like a big company, move like a small one”. Health and safety helps you to do this. If you create a policy with the potential to apply to a big office of 150 people, then you are more likely to build your startup to a point where you do have a big office of 150 people.
Business journalist Patrick Hull echoes this idea, believing strongly in the value of corporate structure for startups. He argues that “it’s important for entrepreneurs to create a defined structure early on, even if you start as a one-man shop”. He goes on to say that other businesses “gravitate toward companies that have well thought out ideas and a clear direction”. In other words, you are not just a person with a laptop; you are the CEO of a company with the health and safety regulation, business plan, and ambition to expand into whatever area you damn well please. Even if your business is just a group of three, be serious about whose role it is to maintain and inspect health and safety. Health and safety acts as a reminder that you are not just a small group of people or even one person. You are a brand with responsibilities and immense potential.
It matters what people think of you
As a startup, social media giant Facebook’s motto was “move fast and break things”. Being a startup means having the desire to break down outdated business ideas. One particularly outdated business idea that is in serious need of breaking is that safety is something ancillary to “real” business. This is completely untrue. Safety is business. Aside from being more economical, a safer business looks better to employees, to investors, and to consumers.
In life, we can sometimes be too self-conscious. But in business, we are rarely self-conscious enough. Volkswagen, once one of the most respected car brands in the world, have fallen into serious disrepute and financial trouble due to their brazen lies about their cars’ emission levels. From this, it’s clear to see that people care about how safe a product is, for both them and the planet, which is why investment and consumer demand for Volkswagen has shrunk significantly since the story broke.
But your employees care about safety too. In 2012, petrol tanker drivers for some of the UK’s biggest oil companies threatened to go on strike. Why? Well, money was a factor, and so were pensions, but the employees’ biggest concern was a lack of safety training. Nobody wants to work for a company that is unsafe. This should be blindingly obvious, and yet it’s a mistake that big businesses make far too often.
Creating strong health and safety regulation allows you to act like a big business, even when you are a startup, but it also means you are able to avoid the mistakes made by big businesses. If you build safety into your business model from the start, it gives you the sort of ambition, moral reputation, and structure to which people (investors, employees, and consumers) are always attracted.
Image by Thom Wong via Flickr.