Workplace accidents aren’t confined to high-risk industries. In fact, accidents can occur even if someone primarily spends the day sitting in an office cubicle. Discover the best ways to stop the epidemic of workplace accidents in America from affecting your business, and find out how to react to an accident if one does happen.
What constitutes a workplace accident?
If an employee suddenly or unexpectedly is injured physically or mentally when performing their job duties, this is considered a workplace accident. Accidents can occur on the employer’s premises or somewhere else workers may be fulfilling their responsibilities. In contrast, a worker who is exposed to a harmful substance like asbestos and years later develops a related illness is considered to be the victim of occupational disease, not a workplace accident.
As an example, an office worker who badly strains their back lifting a heavy box has suffered a workplace accident or injury. But a janitorial worker who develops a bad back due to the repeated strain caused by heavy lifting over many years is suffering from an occupational disease. These distinctions are important when it comes to a company’s legal responsibility.
Employers must, by law, provide compensation for employees’ medical bills and lost wages if they suffer a workplace injury, but such laws vary from state to state. While many large companies can afford to make payments directly to workers from their own funds, most small businesses purchase workers’ compensation insurance. Workers’ compensation insurance is usually a separate policy taken out on top of general liability insurance and professional liability insurance.
In many cases, workers’ compensation coverage will still apply regardless of whether the injured employee was at fault in causing the injury. Employers are mandated to have workers’ compensation insurance to protect workers from such injuries. However, these laws also prevent employees from suing the employer in many, but not all, instances of workplace accidents. [See our picks for the best business insurance providers.]
Certain jobs qualify for an exemption from workers’ compensation insurance, meaning employers don’t have to take out a policy for that specific role.
How can you prevent accidents in the workplace?
There were 2.7 million injuries and 4,654 deaths at U.S. workplaces in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many sustained injuries so severe that they can no longer physically work. But it shouldn’t take a serious accident to persuade business owners and managers to change workplace culture to prioritize employee health and safety. Follow our tips below on preventing workplace accidents.
1. Carry out regular risk assessments.
Identify hazards to health and potential causes of injury by carrying out a risk assessment on your entire workplace. Consider the equipment employees use, the tasks they have to perform, training requirements and workload per employee. Take account of additional risks faced by disabled, older, or pregnant team members. Instruct employees to tell their manager or someone higher up if they feel certain activities put them at greater risk.
Create specific safety procedures to mitigate each risk identified in the assessment. Also, look at ways to strengthen protection where such procedures already exist. Additionally, it’s always a good idea to talk to the people actually doing the work because they’ll have a deeper knowledge of the process or the machinery involved.
Record the threat that each hazard poses and the steps employees need to take to deal with those hazards, and reassess each danger regularly. If you’re taking on new staff or moving equipment around your premises, carry out a special risk assessment to minimize new risks.
2. Conduct physical assessments for demanding roles.
Some types of work are very physically demanding, and they’ll be even harder to perform by someone with a physical condition or limitation. For example, someone with a history of back problems may be unable to work on a construction site or with a lighting rig at a concert venue. Many companies now require prospective employees to take physical and mental health screenings before offering them the job. Others require annual physicals if a role is particularly labor-intensive. While this may seem intrusive, the goal is to ensure the team member’s well-being and that the job doesn’t pose a risk to their health.
3. Provide safety and wellness training regularly.
Let your staff know from the start that health and safety is a business priority and what you expect from them when it comes to behavior in the workplace. Make sure to train new employees on all relevant health and safety instructions that apply to their role. If safety guidance changes as a result of a risk assessment, get all affected staff back in for retraining as soon as possible.
Many workers today value fringe benefits, and some such perks are equally beneficial for the employer. Wellness programs, for instance, encourage better employee physical and mental health. When wellness is a workplace priority, team members are often more alert, responsive and productive.
4. Hire qualified workers.
Some companies and specific roles require licenses to operate. Others are best suited for people with particular degrees and hands-on experience. It’s worth doing your due diligence to ensure prospective employees are truly qualified for the job. If someone isn’t actually as capable as they appear or lacks proper real-life training, they can put their own safety at risk as well as that of those around them.
5. Hire enough workers.
Accidents are more likely to happen if employees have too much to do. If you notice they are struggling with the workload, try to take some of the pressure off by hiring more employees. If you don’t, your workers will be at a higher risk of accidents or burnout. Absenteeism levels may also be greater, which will only exacerbate the problem.
6. Keep workspaces clean and walkways clear.
A cluttered, unclean work area is one that is full of hazards. Make sure staff adhere to best practices, including those as simple as running computer cables and power cords properly so they don’t create a tripping hazard. Other worthwhile efforts include storing equipment appropriately, promptly cleaning up spilled substances and limiting eating to specific areas.
“In many cases, precautionary practices can prevent accidents,” said Marc. S. Albert, a personal injury attorney.
Some insurance providers specialize in certain types of business insurance. See our review of The Hartford to learn about an insurer with a particularly strong workers’ compensation offering.
7. Post proper signage.
Post signs reminding employees of proper safety procedures in common areas and spaces where those procedures should be practiced. For example, a poster in an office kitchen can remind people to mop up any spilled drinks and to put out a hazard sign for wet floors. In manufacturing areas, signs on entrance doors should remind workers to don their protective gear.
8. Provide adequate lighting.
When carrying out risk assessments, ensure there’s plenty of natural and artificial light for staff members to see clearly when completing their work. This is just as important outside of the actual office. Extra lighting is often needed in parking lots, outdoor areas, walkways and entrances and exits. If an employee is injured on your property, it will likely still be your responsibility, particularly if the environment is considered unsafe.
9. Practice good vehicle maintenance.
Make sure all company cars and vehicles are well maintained and serviced on a regular basis. Those that receive maintenance regularly will not only last longer and be more cost-efficient in the long run, but they are simply safer for employees to use. Similarly, it’s vital to ensure any workers getting behind the wheel understand how that specific vehicle operates and are thoroughly capable of driving it. If not, you could be facing medical bills on top of the expenses for repairing a damaged car.
10. Give staff protective equipment.
It isn’t fair, or even ethical, to expect people to perform their jobs without adequate safety equipment. It should be a companywide requirement that all staff are provided the safety equipment necessary for their role on day one. Equipment may vary, from safety harnesses to proper gloves and goggles. Under no circumstances should employees perform functions without the right protective gear.
Additionally, make sure all personal protective equipment (PPE) is regularly inspected for efficacy and replaced if necessary. Train staff on how to use their PPE correctly, and make it the responsibility of managers to note and handle cases where PPE is not being used appropriately.
11. Require employees to dress appropriately for their roles.
While many businesses have changed their company dress code to be more casual in recent years, there are still some situations where wardrobe should be a top concern. Certain footwear should be required at construction sites, for instance, and jewelry that can get caught in machines should be forbidden. What kind of dress is and isn’t appropriate will vary by role and may need to be reevaluated from time to time.
12. Discourage employees from taking shortcuts.
Many accidents happen because people take shortcuts, especially when they’re really familiar with the assignment or are in a hurry. For example, a worker may climb without a safety harness because they want to complete just one small task and gearing up is time-consuming. But each time a shortcut is taken, an employee is risking everything from a minor injury to a life-threatening catastrophe. [See our full guide to workplace safety and our employer guide to complying with OSHA for more recommendations.]
Workers’ compensation insurance for independent contractors is optional, but employers and freelancers may want to consider obtaining it anyway.
What should you do when an accident happens in the workplace?
If a workplace accident does happen, follow these four steps to address the situation.
1. Tend to the employee and report the accident.
Anyone who witnesses an accident in the workplace should tend to the injured employee right away. Find out what help they need immediately, and make sure it’s provided. If a manager isn’t already on the scene, witnesses should report the accident to leadership as soon as possible. Management should then document the incident in the company’s accident records.
2. Determine whether medical treatment is needed.
Obtain the office’s first aid kit to administer assistance for minor injuries like scrapes and cuts. However, some injuries may appear minor at first glance but worsen later. If you’re in any doubt, either get a full assessment of the worker’s injury from a qualified medical practitioner on-site or have them transported to the hospital. For head injuries, exercise particular care and do not move the employee until it is medically safe to do so.
3. Investigate the circumstances and revisit your safety guidelines.
Once the injured party is taken care of, evaluate the area where the accident occurred, and assess what needs to be done immediately to eliminate any ongoing danger. After these concerns are handled, run a new risk assessment and investigate how the accident may have occurred. Was a hazard missed? Or was the staff member not trained enough or supervised correctly before the accident? Update your safety guidelines to address any shortcomings and prevent future incidents.
4. Assist with your employee’s claim.
When it comes to workers’ compensation insurance, time is of the essence after an accident. There is often a short window to report an accident, and very specific documentation is required. Flesh out information about the accident as much as possible for the insurance claim, and fill out any forms provided by the insurer. You may also need to collect witness statements and send a copy of your injury form to your state’s workers’ compensation board.
In some situations, there may be factors or needs that are beyond the scope of what workers’ compensation insurance can provide to the injured employee. In these cases, employees should seek help from medical and legal professionals. But at the end of the day, prevention is key to avoiding such incidents in the first place.
Simon Brisk contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.