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Updated Jul 12, 2024

Workplace Accidents: How to Avoid Them and What to Do When They Happen

Learn how to prevent workplace accidents from hitting your business and the best way to handle accidents if they do occur.

Mark Fairlie
Written By: Mark FairlieSenior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
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Table of Contents

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Workplace accidents aren’t confined to high-risk industries. In fact, accidents can occur even if someone spends most of their day sitting in an office cubicle. Discover the best ways to stop workplace accidents from affecting your business, and learn how to react to an accident if one does occur.

What constitutes a workplace accident?

A workplace accident is any time an employee suddenly or unexpectedly becomes physically or mentally injured while performing their job duties. Accidents can occur on the employer’s premises or wherever the employee fulfills their responsibilities. 

Workplace accident vs. occupational disease

Workplace accidents differ from — but are often confused with — instances of occupational disease. These distinctions are crucial when you’re determining a company’s legal responsibility to the injured party.

Editor’s note: Looking for the right worker’s compensation insurance for your business? Fill out the below questionnaire to have our vendor partners contact you about your needs.

  • Workplace accident example: An office worker who badly strains their back while lifting a heavy box has suffered a workplace accident or injury.
  • Occupational hazard examples: 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. Or, if a worker is exposed to a harmful substance, like asbestos, and develops a related illness years later, they’re a victim of occupational disease, not a workplace accident.

Workers’ compensation responsibilities

Although the laws vary by state, employers typically must compensate employees for their medical bills and lost wages if they suffer a workplace injury. While many large companies can afford to pay workers directly, most small businesses purchase workers’ compensation insurance. This insurance is usually a separate policy taken out on top of general liability insurance and professional liability insurance

In many cases, workers’ compensation coverage applies regardless of whether the injured employee was at fault for the injury. And although employers are legally required to have workers’ compensation insurance, these laws also prevent employees from suing the employer for many, but not all, workplace accidents. 

FYIDid you know
Certain jobs qualify for workers' compensation exemptions, meaning employers don't have to take out a policy for that specific role.

How can you prevent accidents in the workplace?

There were 2.8 million injuries and 5,486 deaths at U.S. workplaces in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many employees sustained injuries so severe that they can no longer physically work. 

However, it shouldn’t take a serious accident to persuade business owners and managers to change their workplace culture to prioritize employee health and safety. Follow the tips below to help prevent workplace accidents.

1. Carry out regular risk assessments.

Conduct a workplace risk assessment to identify health hazards and potential causes of injury. Consider the following factors: 

  • Equipment employees use
  • Tasks employees must perform
  • Training requirements 
  • Employee workloads
  • Added risks that disabled, older or pregnant team members face

After your risk assessment, take the following steps: 

  1. Record all hazards and the threats they pose.
  2. List the specific steps employees must take to deal with those hazards. 
  3. Create (or update and strengthen) formal safety procedures to mitigate each risk. 
  4. Reassess each danger regularly and update procedures as needed.
  5. Investigate and address new risks whenever you take on new staff, change processes or move equipment.
  6. Instruct all employees to tell managers and leadership teams if they feel specific activities put them at greater risk. You must create a culture where employees feel comfortable speaking up.

As you create, formalize and reassess safety procedures, conduct detailed interviews with people involved in each position. These individuals have the knowledge and insights about processes and machinery to better inform your guidance and protect your workers. 

2. Conduct physical assessments for demanding roles.

Some types of work are very physically demanding and are even more challenging for someone with specific physical conditions or limitations. For example, someone with a history of back problems may be unable to work on a construction site or handle a lighting rig at a concert venue. 

Many companies now require prospective employees to take physical and mental health screenings before they are offered a position. Others require annual physicals if a role is particularly labor-intensive. While this may seem intrusive, the goal is to ensure that the job doesn’t pose a risk to the team member’s health.

TipBottom line
While some job functions are essential, whenever possible, offer business accommodations for employees with hearing loss, visual impairments or other disabilities.

3. Provide safety and wellness training regularly.

Show your staff that health and safety are business priorities, and share your expectations for workplace behavior. Invest in employee training on all relevant health and safety instructions that apply to their role. If safety guidance changes due to a risk assessment, retrain your staff immediately.

Instituting corporate wellness programs is another way to show your team that you prioritize safety and wellness. These programs often help improve employees’ physical and mental health and create an atmosphere where team members are more alert, responsive and productive. 

4. Hire qualified workers.

Some companies and specific roles require licenses. Others are best suited for people with particular degrees and hands-on experience. During your hiring process, 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 endanger themselves and those around them.

5. Hire enough workers.

Accidents are more likely to happen if employees are tasked with too much. If you notice team members struggling with their workloads, take some of the pressure off by hiring more employees. If you don’t, your workers will be at a higher risk of accidents and employee burnout. Additionally, workplace absenteeism levels may be greater, which will only exacerbate the problem.

6. Keep workspaces clean and walkways clear.

A cluttered, unclean work area is intrinsically full of hazards. Ensure staff members 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, cleaning up spilled substances promptly and limiting eating to specific areas.

“In many cases, precautionary practices can prevent accidents,” said Marc S. Albert, a personal injury attorney.

Did You Know?Did you know
Your company may require specific business insurance policies. Ask your insurance broker about legally required coverage and insurance best practices for your industry.

7. Post proper signage.

Post signs in common areas and appropriate places to remind employees of proper safety procedures. For example, a poster in an office kitchen can remind people to mop up spilled drinks and put out a hazard sign when the floor is wet. In manufacturing areas, signs on entrance doors should remind workers to don their protective gear.

8. Provide adequate lighting.

When carrying out risk assessments, you should ensure that there’s plenty of natural and artificial light for staff members to see clearly when completing their work. Lighting is equally crucial outside the office. For example, parking lots, outdoor areas, walkways, entrances and exits must be properly lit. If an employee is injured on your property, it will likely still be your responsibility, particularly if the environment is considered unsafe.

Did You Know?Did you know
Lighting also affects productivity and mood, so the proper use of natural light, desk lights and backdrop lighting can benefit both you and your team.

9. Practice good vehicle maintenance.

Ensure that all company cars are well maintained and serviced regularly. Properly maintained vehicles will last longer, be more cost-efficient in the long run, and help ensure the safety of your employees and the general public. 

It’s also vital to ensure that any employees who drive for the company understand how their specific vehicles operate and are authorized to operate them. 

10. Provide staff with protective equipment.

It isn’t fair or ethical to expect people to perform their jobs without adequate safety equipment. On day one, it should be a company-wide requirement to provide all staff members with the safety equipment necessary for their roles. This equipment might include safety harnesses, gloves, goggles or masks, depending on the role. Under no circumstances should employees perform functions without the right protective gear.

Additionally, ensure that all personal protective equipment (PPE) is inspected regularly 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 attire is a significant concern. For example, specific footwear should be required at construction sites, and jewelry that can get caught in machines should be forbidden. Which attire is and isn’t appropriate will vary by role and may need to be reevaluated occasionally.

12. Discourage employees from taking shortcuts.

Many accidents happen because people take shortcuts, especially when they’re familiar with the assignment or are in a hurry. For example, a worker may climb without a safety harness because they want to complete a small task without the time-consuming process of gearing up properly. However, shortcuts create risks and can result in minor injuries and even life-threatening catastrophes.

FYIDid you know
Workplace safety isn't just a good idea — it's the law. To maintain OSHA compliance, employers must promptly detect and resolve workplace health and safety issues.

What should you do when an accident happens in the workplace?

Despite your best efforts to maintain a safe environment, workplace accidents can occur. If so, follow these 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 immediately. Determine what help they need, and ensure 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, get a full assessment of the worker’s injury from a qualified onsite medical practitioner or have them transported to the hospital. For head injuries, exercise particular care and do not move the employee until it is medically safe.

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 must be done immediately to eliminate ongoing danger. After these concerns are handled, run a new risk assessment and investigate how the accident may have occurred. Was a hazard missed? 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 for the workers’ comp claims process. Flesh out information about the accident as much as possible, and complete the necessary insurance forms. You also may need to collect witness statements and send a copy of your injury form to your state’s workers’ compensation board.

In some situations, factors or needs may be 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. 

Bottom LineBottom line
A workers' compensation settlement may be necessary in situations where injured workers have experienced severe or permanent harm. This lump sum or structured payment settlement will consider the worker's current and future financial and medical needs.

Why is it important to prevent accidents in the workplace?

Workplace safety goes beyond an obvious moral and ethical obligation. “Aside from your company’s moral obligation to provide a safe work environment and protect your employees’ well-being, putting workplace safety equipment and policies in place saves your company a significant amount of money and time,” said Anthony Dublino, regional area manager for SafeRack. 

Here are some of the top reasons why it’s important to prevent workplace accidents:

  • Preventing workplace accidents boosts employee morale. Nothing is more demoralizing to employees than knowing their company doesn’t care about them. Implementing a robust safety program tells your team members that their safety and health are paramount and helps foster goodwill and employee happiness
  • Preventing workplace accidents lowers absenteeism. Employees who get hurt or become sick because of their jobs will likely miss work. If they file a workers’ compensation claim, they are even more likely to miss workdays because the workers’ comp claims process tends to be laborious and slow. Preventing workplace injuries helps keep your employees at work. 
  • Preventing workplace accidents boosts productivity. Injured workers need time to recover, meaning their responsibilities fall on co-workers — or fall through the cracks. Additionally, injured employees who return to the workplace need time to get caught up and ramp up their productivity. Preventing these incidents helps boost productivity, as healthy teams enjoy safe, optimized environments.
  • Preventing workplace accidents lowers workers’ comp rates. Workers’ compensation rates depend on several factors, including previous claims. Fewer claims on your company’s workers’ comp insurance result in lower premiums, thus saving the company money.
  • Preventing workplace accidents improves your reputation. Companies with repeated workplace injuries develop a reputation for negligence and a lack of attention to detail. This bad reputation can follow your business for years, even after you implement safety changes. In contrast, a safe environment can strengthen your company’s reputation and help you appeal to customers and potential recruits.
  • Preventing workplace accidents helps you avoid OSHA fines. Frequent workplace accidents can catch the eye of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency that enforces workplace safety rules. Serious OSHA violations can incur a $16,131 penalty, with an additional $16,131 per day beyond the abatement date if fixes are not implemented. Ignore OSHA at your peril; the penalty for willful or repeated violations goes up tenfold to $161,323 per violation.
Mark Fairlie
Written By: Mark FairlieSenior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
Mark Fairlie brings decades of expertise in telecommunications and telemarketing to the forefront as the former business owner of a direct marketing company. Also well-versed in a variety of other B2B topics, such as taxation, investments and cybersecurity, he now advises fellow entrepreneurs on the best business practices. With a background in advertising and sales, Fairlie made his mark as the former co-owner of Meridian Delta, which saw a successful transition of ownership in 2015. Through this journey, Fairlie gained invaluable hands-on experience in everything from founding a business to expanding and selling it. Since then, Fairlie has embarked on new ventures, launching a second marketing company and establishing a thriving sole proprietorship.
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