This week’s “Ask the Mompreneur“ features an interview with Ed Foulke, who headed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from 2006 to 2008. Foulke is now a partner at Fisher & Phillips LLP, a law firm that represents employers across the country.
QUESTION: Many owners of growing businesses will need to rent commercial office space when they outgrow the spare bedroom. What do they need to do when setting up their space to ensure safety and avoid potential liability?
ANSWER: When beginning a new venture and purchasing or renting an office or building space, many small-business owners assume there are no safety or health issues or that those issues are handled by the seller or rental management agent. Such an assumption is wrong and, in many cases, could result in the business owner facing significant OSHA penalties for safety and health violations.
Every entrepreneur needs to realize that once the first employee is hired, the company is automatically covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and subject to inspections by OSHA compliance officers. There also may be additional safety and health laws in the state and city in which the new business is located.
There are three broad areas of safety and health concerns that all entrepreneurs must examine when setting up their first office space. The first concern involves the physical structure to be purchased or rented. It is critical that the entrepreneur receive written assurances that the space being purchased or rented complies fully with the state and local building codes, the life safety codes and all OSHA standards.
Specifically, from an OSHA perspective, the small-business owner must determine if there are any physical safety and health hazards to which employees may be exposed. Those physical hazards may include electrical hazards, walking and working surface issues, sanitation, exit routes, ventilation, noise exposure, hazardous materials, fire protection and machine guarding. The owner must also closely examine whether there are any other health hazards, including mold, hazardous chemicals or substances in the walls, ceilings and carpeting. If the building was built before 1980, the owner must make sure that any asbestos in the space has been removed or is in a non-friable state, to prevent exposing any employees to asbestos fibers.
The second major concern involves the selection of equipment and office furniture. The set-up of the office furniture must not block exit routes, and there must be free access to all exits for emergency use. In addition, the business owner must review ergonomic issues associated with office furniture and equipment, particularly the placement of computer keyboards. The entrepreneur also needs to ensure there are no electrical hazards associated with improper wiring or use of extension cords in lieu of permanent wiring. Finally, the business owner should also examine the work site to ensure that the use of office equipment, and particularly electrical cords, does not present a tripping hazard for the employees.
The third area of concern is other safety and health issues, including state and local regulations. The entrepreneur must determine if there are any hazards that would necessitate the use of personal protective equipment at the work site and if any safety training will be necessary for that protective equipment or to meet OSHA standards.
Lastly, every entrepreneur or small-business owner needs to be aware that if their employees are present while the office space is being set up and outside contractors are being utilized, OSHA’s multi-employer citation policy could be applicable. If outside vendors and contractors are working on or in the entrepreneur’s space, the entrepreneur becomes the “controlling“ employer of the site and thus is responsible for any safety and health violations caused by the contractor or vendor where employees are exposed to a safety or health hazard. In this scenario, the business owner could be cited by OSHA and receive penalties for safety and health violations that have been created by their contractors or vendors.
Jennie Wong is an executive coach, author of the e-book “Ask the Mompreneur“ and the founder of the social shopping website CartCentric.com. Email her at TheJennieWonggmail.com.