Health and safety checklist for small business owners

Free customizable forms help you understand and meet Ontario legal requirements

Variety of workers

Almost 98 per cent of 1.17 million employers in Canada are small businesses, and Ontario is home to more than 410,000 of them. In honour of Small Business Week October 16 to 22 – a national celebration of Canadian entrepreneurs and their contribution to our economy –  it’s a good time to promote a new simple and easy-to-understand checklist that helps business owners meet health and safety requirements. 

The challenge of health and safety for small business

A recent European study indicated that small businesses are at highest risk for workplace injury and illness compared to larger companies. The report states thirty per cent of small businesses do not regularly carry out risk assessments, compared with only three per cent of enterprises with 250 or more employees. And, of the small businesses that do not carry out risk assessments, over 80 per cent believe that ‘the risks and hazards are already known’ or that ‘there are no major problems.’

The report identifies several factors, including the low investment that small businesses are able to make in occupational health and safety (OHS) infrastructure; limited knowledge of owner-managers of OHS and regulatory requirements; limited capacity to manage affairs systematically; and attitudes and priorities, given their limited resources and concerns for the economic survival of their business, in which OHS has a low profile. The findings also reveal significant gaps in current knowledge on the effectiveness of strategies and interventions aimed at supporting OHS in small business. 

This summer, the Ontario Ministry of Labour introduced the small business health and safety checklist, which is customizable according to number of regular employees: one to five, five to 19, or more than 20. The free fillable PDF forms are available on the MOL website.

“We hear time and time again from small businesses, ‘We just don’t know where to start – please, point us in the right direction,’ said Sandra Lawson, regional director at the Ministry of Labour. “Well here’s a streamlined checklist that is customized for your business based on the answers that you give that will point you in the right direction.”

Lawson said the new tool cuts through an overwhelming amount of resource information and helps serve as a starting point for small businesses.

“It helps you know where to go to get help, because it’s a bit of jungle out there…So we’re trying to simplify it. We’re trying to provide a way for small businesses to know where to get help. Because at the end of the day, we know that no one wants a worker to get injured.”

By customizing the checklist according to business size, Lawson says it also prevents businesses from having to wade through irrelevant material. 

Organized into four parts, the checklist guides business owners on how to meet requirements under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA)

  1. Roles and responsibilities – helps employers and workers understand their responsibilities in the workplace

  2. Reporting and records management – helps employers understand reporting requirements when there is a workplace incident such as an injury 

  3. Hazards in the workplace – ensures procedures are in place to control dangers

  4. Training – ensures all workers complete mandatory health and safety awareness training, including specific training on hazards found in the workplace 

How the law affects your business

“Some business owners incorrectly believe health and safety legislation does not apply to them,” says Tom Welton, Industrial Director at Workplace Safety North (WSN). “For example, owners who opt out of Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) coverage sometimes make the assumption they can also opt out of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, however, that is not the case; they are two separate pieces of legislation.”

Small business owner and two-time WSN health and safety award winner, John Fleming of Fleming’s Trucking and Logging admits it’s hard to find the time to do everything. He considers health and safety a business investment. “There’s a lot of stuff to do, but once you get it in place, it’s a big relief, knowing everything is done the way it should be. I sleep better at night.” 

Small business resource information has been bundled into one place by the ministry to help employers better understand OHSA and the Employment Standards Act in Ontario.

For more information, please contact your local WSN Health and Safety Specialist.


Small Business free resources and tools – Ontario Ministry of Labour

Small Business Health and Safety information brochure – Workplace Safety North

The big picture: Solving the “problem” of OHS in small business – Institute for Work and Health