Safety and Small business: Documenting Safety

workplace safety
Image by Mark Wallace / Flickr
In the UK there’s a simple rule that companies employing less than 5 people are exempt from a lot of the paperwork inherent in our safety law. Now it’s important to remember that the exemption applies to paperwork not to the general duty to keep yourself and your employees’ safe – the basic need to ensure safety is adequately managed remains on anyone working or running a small company.

Equally the need to report the more serious accidents at work remains no matter how large or small the company. But on the whole the duty for small companies is to keep people safe in the real world rather than document how you do it.

However whilst the need for a written safety policy and risk assessments in their various forms are not a legal requirement if you have less than 5 people working for you. In recent years the legal requirements have been overshadowed at times by larger companies requirements for their suppliers, contractors and sub-contractors to produce risk assessments and safety policies.

Many companies now operating “safe” contractor schemes that can go beyond the legal requirements and require small contractors and suppliers to provide risk assessments especially for work on their behalf or on their premises.

The transition to more formal written safety documents whether because you break through the employee threshold or because a large client requires written assessments shouldn’t be a major burden if handled correctly.

Many small business can do the work themselves – others prefer to employ a health and safety consultant. For many small businesses the things lacking are normally time and confidence – especially when faced with large questionnaires from large companies.

No there is plenty of guidance on the HSE website for both writing risk assessments and safety policy so it can be done in house – you are running the business so you probably know what’s safe and what isn’t safe already. It’s merely getting that written down. As a consultant probably 80% of my work is writing down what clients already do rather than changing how they work because of risk assessments.

A safety policy for most small companies is a simple and quick document – simply write down what you do to keep people safe. They normally come in a format whereby the first few paragraphs set down a commitment to safety; the next sections detail how you manage safety (how you choose equipment, how you maintain that equipment, how you select and train your staff) and finish with any routines you have. It should also state clearly who’s responsible for safety – as a small business that will always be the owner/senior manager.

Equally risk assessments are merely an exercise in writing down how you keep tasks and the workplace safe. The HSE 5 Steps to Risk Assessment is a very simple way of doing your own risk assessments – Identify the things that could hurt people, think about who could be hurt, look at everything you do to keep people safe (that’s all the guards on equipment, rules you have in place plus things like staff training) and then decide on the risk – is it LOW (acceptable), MEDIUM (could it be improved) or HIGH (you will need to reduce the risk as a matter of urgency). Write it down – obviously if you discover things that aren’t right fix them and then re assess to see how much you’ve reduced the risk.

Now there may be reasons why you don’t want to do the paperwork yourself – or it may be simply that running the business takes your time and you just want someone to write the paper for you and give you some support. At this point you can consider a safety consultant.

The OSHCR website is a list of “competent” safety people meeting criteria set down in part by the HSE and is a good place to start – or at least a good place to check once you’ve found a consultant. Ask around for recommendations and get a few quotes the same as you would for anything else.

To write a good compact safety policy and risk assessments shouldn’t take an experienced consultant very long for the size of business discussed here so it shouldn’t be an expensive exercise – especially if it saves you time to run the business.

Remember the safety policy needs to be suitable – for a small company 4 pages is probably more than sufficient and equally your risk assessments should be something useful and to the point.

About the Author: Chris Elliott is a Health and Safety Consultant running his own consultancy in London. Holding full CMIOSH status Chris works with a variety of clients from small local companies, national retailers through to major TV productions offering a certain variety in his working life. Chris Elliott can be contacted via or website at