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Small and medium-sized enterprises and OSH IOSH policy position

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) play a key role in national economies and globally, generating employment, adding value and contributing to innovation, sustainability, and inclusive growth.

Workers operating in micro-organisations and SMEs are often at a greater risk of workplace accidents and work-related ill-health and tend to have higher rates of accidents and disease. Also, as SMEs become more active in supply chains and in the informal economy, their ability to manage risk becomes more important. To that end, supporting micro and SMEs in their corporate governance and due diligence is vital if we want reduce accidents and ill-health of this key segment of the labour market.

The facts

  • SMEs are a growing part of economies across the world, considering the structures and systems in which they operate there’s an urgent need to improve our understanding of their engagement with OSH.
  • SMEs account for the majority of businesses worldwide and are important contributors to job creation and global economic development. They represent about 90 per cent of businesses and more than 50 per cent of employment worldwide.
  • In 2018, there were slightly more than 25 million SMEs in the EU, of which 93 per cent were micro-SMEs. SMEs accounted for 99.8 per cent of all enterprises in the EU non-financial business sector (NFBS), generating 56.4 per cent of value added and 66.6 per cent of employment in the NFBS.
  • More than 99 per cent of UK businesses are SMEs, each with fewer than 250 employees. Together, they account for 60 per cent of private sector jobs, according to the Federation of Small Businesses.
  • ILO figures show that the self-employment rate for the world as a whole is equal to 42.5 per cent. The extent of self-employment within countries varies inversely with the level of economic development: 76.5 per cent of all employment in developing countries, 46.2 per cent in emerging countries and 10.0 per cent in developed countries.
  • An EU-OSHA report showed that small enterprises have an increased risk of accidents, compared to large enterprises. In firms with fewer than 50 workers the fatal accident rate is around double that of larger companies. The study also suggested that there is also a higher risk of non-fatal accidents.
  • An HSE study showed that a substantial proportion of SMEs do report a considerable health and safety burden. This includes excessive and disproportionate policies and procedures, with no obvious health and safety benefit.
  • An IOSH-funded research project demonstrated that OSH practices in SMEs and micro organisations tend to reflect the more informal characteristics of such organisations, with more emphasis than many larger organisations on tacit knowledge, learning by doing and improvisation.

Our position

SMEs play a key role in national economies around the world, generating employment, adding value and contributing to innovation, sustainability and inclusive growth.

Good health and safety is good for business. Effective occupational safety and health regulations and implementation help ensure many millions of lives and livelihoods are protected each and every day. SMEs have unique features that affect their approach to and outcomes from occupational safety and health (OSH) and sustainable practices. These features should be taken into consideration by regulators and policy-makers when designing compliance, policies, strategies, programmes, tools and initiatives for SMEs to improve OSH performance, protect workers and improve working conditions.

Workers operating in micro-organisations and SMEs are often at a greater risk of workplace accidents and work-related ill-health and tend to have higher rates of accidents and disease. Also, as SMEs become more active in supply chains and in the informal economy, their ability to manage risk becomes more important. Supporting micro-organisations and SMEs in their corporate governance and due diligence is vital if we want to reduce accidents and ill-health in this key segment of the labour market.

Micro-organisations and SMEs stand to gain significant benefits from adopting responsible and sustainable business practices, irrespective of the sector they are in. IOSH believes that policy-makers and regulators need to be more focused on proportionate actions, good and easily accessible advice and tailored solutions to upskill them.

IOSH calls on micro-organisations and SMEs to ensure they are aware of occupational safety and health requirements and risks in relation to their business, and to put in place proportionate systems and controls for the protection of their workers.

IOSH resources

  • IOSH leads on the development of the Occupational Safety and Health Consultants Register Ltd (OSHCR) as one of its companies and helps make it a more widely recognised source of competent, independent and proportionate OSH advice.
  • The International Social Security Association (ISSA) has partnered with IOSH to ensure its Vision Zero strategy can be implemented by organisations around the world through quality training.
  • Occupational health toolkit – a ‘one-stop-shop’ for SMEs to access information on common occupational health issues and on managing non-work-related health conditions.
  • Risk assessment routefinder – an online resource providing information and guidance on a wide variety of business risks, including health and safety.
  • Getting help with health and safety – a guide to help businesses who want to work with a health and safety consultant.
  • IOSH provides an information helpline for health and safety information and guidance.
  • Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, IOSH created and shared content to help companies worldwide adapt and respond.

Research reports

The Managing safety in outsourced relationships study explores outsourcing practices when working with different types of contractors, focusing on the relationship between client firms and the main sub-contractor.

The Engagement of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises in occupational safety and health: “Project know-how” study investigated the perceptions of occupational safety and health in SMEs and micro-organisations in the UK.

The study Understanding the role of supply chains in influencing health and safety management and regulation reviews the complexities of supply chain relationships, the factors that affect them and their role in influencing health and safety management and standards among supplier organisations.

Relevant IOSH consultation responses