Guest editorial


International Journal of Workplace Health Management

ISSN: 1753-8351

Article publication date: 28 June 2011



Hasle, P. and Jørgen Limborg, H. (2011), "Guest editorial", International Journal of Workplace Health Management, Vol. 4 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Guest editorial

Article Type: Guest editorial From: International Journal of Workplace Health Management, Volume 4, Issue 2

About the Guest Editors

Peter Hasle, PhD, is Professor at the National Research Centre for the Working Environment, Copenhagen, Denmark. He has had earlier positions at the Technical University of Denmark, the International Labour Organisations and in an independent research institution. He has studied working conditions in small businesses for more than two decades. He was Director of DAVID – Centre for Research in Management, Organisation and Working Environment in Small Enterprises and chairman for the international conference: Understanding Small Enterprises 2009 in Denmark. His research interest is in integration of business strategy, work organisation and employee well-being.

Hans Jorgen Limborg, PhD, is Research Director at TeamWorking Life, a private research and consulting institution from Copenhagen, Denmark. He has developed a lifelong interest in small businesses and was member of the board for the DAVID - Centre for Research in Management, Organisation and Working Environment in Small Enterprises and co-chairman for the international conference- Understanding Small Enterprises 2009 in Denmark. His research interest is in social relations among employees, between employees and owner-manager and networks among managers. His focus is how social relations define psychosocial working conditions and how they can open possibilities for improvement of the working environment.

Occupational health and safety in small enterprises: the need for a diversity of strategies

Small enterprises constitute a major challenge for occupational health and safety (OHS) regulators, professionals and researchers. They make up the great majority of all establishments and employ a major part of the work force; yet, by and large, preventive efforts are designed for larger enterprises and rarely reach the smaller ones. One important reason is cost. It is simply expensive to reach out to the huge number of individual enterprises, and small enterprises are therefore seldom inspected, advisory services show little interest in this group, and in some cases there are even legal exceptions that mean small enterprises do not need to follow parts of the OHS legislation (Hasle and Limborg, 2006).

But, in fact, there are some very good reasons for putting focus on small enterprises. It is now well established that smaller enterprises are more hazardous than larger ones (Fabiano et al., 2004; Schlunssen et al., 2001; Sørensen et al., 2007; Stevens, 1999; Suruda and Wallace, 1996; Walters, 2001). Moreover, their capacity to control OHS is very limited. Small enterprises have limited finance, management and time resources (Champoux and Brun, 2003; Hasle et al., 2011; Hasle and Limborg, 2006; Walters, 2001). The owner-manager of a small company has to take personal responsibility of management matters such as sales, purchase of materials, accounting, production planning, and personnel matters – all issues which are crucial for the survival of the firm. In this context, OHS seems only a peripheral matter which the owner-manager tends to consider as an unnecessary nuisance that diverts attention from important business priorities. It is therefore no surprise that small enterprises have difficulty in complying with legal requirements (Addison and Burgess, 2002; Champoux and Brun, 2003; Lamm, 1998; Vickers et al., 2005). Owner-managers also tend to underestimate risk and overestimate their knowledge about risk control (Hasle et al., 2011; Hasle et al., 2009) and, to some extent, push the responsibility for OHS on to the workers (Eakin, 1992).

There has therefore been a search for methods which could reach out to the small enterprises in an effective manner (Champoux and Brun, 2003; Hasle and Limborg, 2006; Lamm, 1999; Legg et al., 2010; Walters, 2001). These attempts have seen some progress. It is clear, for instance, that small enterprises prefer personal contact and have little use of written information materials, and that it is important to use existing channels which have both resources for a sustainable effort and the confidence of the owner-managers (Hasle et al., 2010; MacEachen et al., 2010; Torp, 2008). However, the universal key to effective preventive efforts has still not been identified, and it is questionable whether it can be found. The huge number of small enterprises in all sectors of the labour market and the remarkable variation between them call for much more diversified strategies. It is likely that the most effective strategy to reach out to small enterprises will be a combination of several different strategies, using a variety of approaches, methods and channels to the target groups.

Researchers in occupational health and safety in small enterprises often have their main interest in specific OHS fields and have studied accidents, chemicals or ergonomics in small enterprises. Results have therefore tended to be fragmented, because the understanding of small enterprises achieved in a study of ergonomics, for instance, was not built upon in a subsequent study of chemicals in small enterprises. However, recent years have seen a positive development in this respect, and researchers now are much more likely to build upon previous research even in different fields than their own.

One positive example of this trend was the conference, “USE2009 – Understanding Small Enterprises – a healthy working life in a healthy business”, which was organised by the research community DAVID in Denmark in 2009 ( It was an important opportunity to gather researchers and practitioners with a variety of approaches to small enterprises. One of the results of this conference is this special issue of the International Journal of Workplace Health Management.

The special issue is an illustration of the diversity of understanding revealed at the conference. It contains five papers which illustrate different and novel ways of approaching health and safety in small enterprises. The five papers, each with its own original approach, demonstrate both the need for a mutual understanding of small enterprises and the need for the development of diversified strategies to reach out to the small enterprises.

Two articles share an interest in the owner-managers’ ethical concerns and discuss the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a possible strategy for workplace improvements. Granerud presents a study of CSR and the working environment in 21 small Danish firms. She reveals the motives and practices of owner-managers with regard to health and safety and relates them to CSR. The results show that small firms do take an interest in CSR, but mainly with an informal approach. They are motivated by ethical reasoning and by a wish to create attractive workplaces to retain employees. The initiatives may have a positive effect on employee health, but are rarely applied strategically or with external reputation outside the local community as a motive. Health and safety specialists can learn from this study that the voluntary CSR approach may have potential for opening a dialogue with small enterprises, something which can be difficult with more traditional approaches.

De Jong raises the question of whether the globalisation process leads to a social “race to the bottom”, and argues that an international transfer of socially responsible, employee-oriented practices in multinational small enterprises may take developments in another direction. His point of departure is that even small firms can work with an international approach, and he refers to the transport sector in The Netherlands, where some small firms have activities in more than one country. The article is based on a literature review, structured by three perspectives: that employees can be considered as legitimate stakeholders in employee-oriented CSR, that the human resource management perspective can increase employee commitment, and that an institutionalist perspective is relevant to understanding what forms an employee-oriented CSR practice. He argues that owner-managers who view their employees as legitimate stakeholders of the firm will introduce employee-oriented CSR out of a sense of moral responsibility towards their employees, and that this is also likely to be transferred across borders. Also in this case, CSR is confirmed as a valuable concept for working conditions in small enterprises.

Two other articles remind us that in small enterprises the issue of health and safety is not just a matter of management and social relations. A number of “traditional” health and safety issues are still predominant, and can and will cause accidents and diseases if not met with effective prevention strategies. In small enterprises, the risk perception is different from large companies, because many of them rarely, or maybe never, experience a serious accident or an employee with a severe occupational health problem, even though the risk is statistically higher than in large enterprises. Jørgensen, Duijm, and Troen have accepted this challenge and their aim is to develop a method which can make the accident risks in small enterprises more transparent. Their point of departure is the risk for accidents related to specific work activities calculated from a large database of accidents. They have then studied the frequency of these activities in selected sectors and have subsequently developed a tool to communicate real-life risks to the small enterprises. It can be a useful way of opening a dialogue with the owner-managers in small enterprises about the difficult issue of risk awareness.

Laird, Olsen, Harris, Legg and Perry likewise build on the characteristics of small enterprises in their endeavour to develop strategies to prevent exposure to hazardous substances. They review the literature on attempts to introduce management systems to control hazardous chemical exposure in small enterprises. They argue that if the particular features of small enterprises are utilised in the development of interventions to control hazardous substance, the possibilities for impact will be greater. But they find that most interventions have been developed without taking such small enterprise characteristics into account. These two articles thus pinpoint how labour inspectors and OHS specialists will be able to improve their achievements in small enterprises if they build upon already existing knowledge about these workplaces.

In the remaining article, Gravel, Rhéaume and Legendre have turned to the health and safety of immigrants employed in small enterprises – an issue which has been subject to little research. The authors document that in Montreal, Canada, small enterprises with a high incidence of serious injuries to a large extent employ immigrants, and that the enterprises have totally or partially failed to implement health and safety management. One important explanation is a culturally biased understanding of the regulations on occupational health and safety and that this defective understanding is found in both managers and workers. The barriers to the development of health and safety awareness are not only linguistic. Immigrant workers are in a vulnerable position and they find it difficult to understand the culture related to the prevention of risks and the way the employer and workers share responsibility. Preventive strategies should therefore consider both factual OHS knowledge and cultural integration.

Readers might find one or two of the articles more relevant for their own research than others, but the extra value of this special issue is that it shows how much the various approaches to reach out to small enterprises complement each other, especially when we take into account the need to understand small enterprises on their own terms as a prerequisite for the development of successful preventive strategies.

Peter Hasle and Hans Jørgen Limborg


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Hasle, P. and Limborg, H.J. (2006), “A review of the literature on preventive occupational health and safety activities in small enterprises”, Ind.Health, Vol. 44 No. 1, pp. 6–12

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