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In 2012, there were approximately 5.7 million businesses in the United States with employees, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Firms with fewer than 20 workers accounted for approximately 90% of the total number of firms, and the majority of firms in every major industry sector are very small businesses (10 or fewer employees). Almost 18% of the U.S. labor force works in firms with less than 20 employees. Although the definition of a "small" business varies widely, particularly as it relates to discussions of workplace safety and health, the characteristics that distinguish a smaller business from a larger one in terms of OSH capacities include not only number of employees but also the structure (including sole proprietorships), the age of the business (most new businesses are small), and a manager-centered culture (the owner/operator sets the culture of the business) [Cunningham et al. 2014]. Despite the stereotype of a small business as a small town retail or service firm, some smaller businesses do not fit the stereotype, e.g., high-tech manufacturing startups.

Small businesses struggle to exist in a precarious economic environment. While two-thirds of new small businesses survive at least 2 years, only 44% survive at least 4 years. These numbers are consistent across sectors. One research team found that businesses that lasted five years had less than half the annual workplace injury rate as businesses that lasted only two years. Market forces, structural changes, and emerging social and business climate threats may affect levels of resources available for occupational safety and health initiatives for small businesses. Financial limitations are frequently cited by small business owners as a barrier to implementing recommended health and safety programs. Other issues frequently take precedence when small businesses survive on the edge of viability. For example, according to a National Federation of Independent Business membership survey, the number one small business issue is the cost and availability of insurance.

NIOSH is aware that economic factors often overshadow small business decision making. Thus, NIOSH has considerable interest in demonstrating economically viable, practical solutions for small businesses and in providing simple yet effective tools for small businesses to improve health and safety in the workplace.

Featured Resources

Small Business Resource Guide

Small Business Resource Guide

This guide is intended to help small business owners, employers, and managers deal with occupational safety and health concerns. Others involved with the small business community may also benefit from using this resource

Small Business Safety Interventions that Work
For a number of years, the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation has provided grants to qualified small businesses to support the use of safety interventions in Ohio workplaces (the SafetyGRANT$ program). Participating employers reported information about the cost/benefit of the intervention. At this link, you will find 149 employer reports about different workplace equipment changes that have demonstrated positive safety and health results. Reports address a total of seventeen different risk factors (e.g., musculoskeletal) across eight industry sectors. There are also five "Success Story" videos.

Worker Injury and Illness Average Incidence Rates by Industry and Establishment Size - 2011
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides these data annually (1994-2011). They are under the "Quartile Data" heading on this BLS page. Note that "establishment" means a location where economic activity is conducted. One firm or enterprise may operate multiple establishments. More information about these definitions . Also note that some researchers have attributed lower incidence rates for establishments with fewer than 10 employees to possible under-reporting.

OSHA Publications for Small Businesses
These publications cover general information such as “New Businesses Fact Sheet” and “Small Business Handbook” as well as information for specific hazards such as “Small Entity Compliance Guide for Hexavalent Chromium Standards” and “A Guide for Protecting Workers from Woodworking Hazards."


NIOSHTIC-2 search results on Small Business
NIOSHTIC-2 is a searchable bibliographic database of occupational safety and health publications, documents, grant reports, and journal articles supported in whole or in part by NIOSH.

NIOSH Publications

Identifying High-Risk Small Business Industries
DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 99-107
NIOSH has prepared this report to characterize the risk of occupational injury, illness, and fatality in industries composed mostly of small business establishments.

Health Hazard Evaluations

Health Hazard Evaluations
Health Hazard Evaluations (HHEs) are investigations done by NIOSH in response to concerns expressed by employees, employers, or union representatives to find out whether there is a health hazard to employees caused by hazardous exposures and conditions in the workplace.

Other Resources

U.S. Small Business Administration
This site provides a wide range of information and resources for entrepeneurs who are starting and growing businesses. E-newsletters, free on-line training, business tools, and information about grant programs and other forms of assistance are included. One of their counseling services, the SCORE program (Service Corps of Retired Executives), provides entrepeneur education through over 10,000 retired executives organized in 374 chapters throughout the country. The chapter for Cincinnati, OH, Northern KY, and Southeast IN is in a pilot partnership with NIOSH Cincinnati operations.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Small Business site
This site provides access to the most popular materials for small businesses, from free on-site consultation to interactive computer software to technical information to easy-to-follow guides for specific OSHA standards. It also includes links to OSHA local offices and the Small Business Administration.


Chu RC, Trapnell GR [2003]. National Federation of Independent Business; Kaiser Family Foundation; Advocacy-funded research by (See Research Summary #224).

Headd B [2003]. Redefining business success: Distinguishing between closure and failure. Small Business Economics 21(1):51 61.

Holizki, T., L. Nelson, and R. McDonald, Injury Rate as an Indicator of Business Success. Industrial Health, 2006: p. 166-168.

Knaup AE [2005]. Survival and longevity in the business employment dynamics database. Monthly Labor Review,128(5):50 56.

Statistics of U.S. Businesses, U.S. Census Bureau:External Web Site Icon