What SMEs need to know

Whether you run a company with six or 600 employees, creating a safe and healthy work environment is an important element of doing business worldwide. Not only is it a legal requirement, it’s critical to your long-term success. Knowing what’s required of you as an employer—and understanding the impacts of health and safety practices that go beyond the basics—can help you operate efficiently, reduce the risk of work-related injuries and illness, and grow globally. 


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What are employee health and safety rights?

In Canada, all workers are protected by operational health and safety (OH&S) laws, which vary depending on where you operate. Many basic elements are consistent, including the health and safety rights all Canadian employees enjoy:

  • The right to know about known or foreseen hazards in the workplace and to be given safety information and training  
  • The right to participate in identifying and correcting job-related health and safety concerns 
  • The right to refuse dangerous work

Many other countries have similar protections. Internationally, a safe and healthy working environment is now a fundamental principle and human right, as adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in June 2022. This right applies to all businesses, including small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).



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What health and safety risks apply to your business?

Everyone touched by your operations deserves to be safe and well. That includes your workers and others you may impact such as customers, visitors, suppliers and community members. Whether you deal with hazardous materials, build custom furniture, or manufacture clothing, you’re responsible for understanding the specific safety risks and actively managing them.  

Health and safety laws and standards are set by your province and territory. The Canada Labour Code defines the rights and responsibilities of workers and employers in federally-regulated workplaces. There are also international standards on health and safety that can help SMEs with their practices. For example, ISO 45001 is a voluntary standard to guide companies, including SMEs, with health and safety management.   

Work-related injuries, illnesses or fatalities are always difficult for any kind of organization, but the negative effects for small businesses can be overwhelming. There are huge opportunities to enhance OH&S in the workplace.

International Standards Organization (ISO)


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How does health and safety affect exporters?

Business with international partners

More international buyers require evidence that you’re managing health and safety through a standard such as ISO 45001 or policies, processes or trade association assessments. In addition, you’re responsible for managing the risks when contractors are carrying out work for your business—whether at home or abroad. 

Increasing global attention to health and safety practices 

As recent workplace accidents have made headlines, more and more attention is being paid to the health and safety of employees and communities around the globe. This has led to increasing health and safety regulations worldwide such as tougher chemical safety enforcement in South Korea and Japan. At the same time, some countries lack regulation, which may increase a company’s health and safety risks. As an exporter, you may want to implement an international health and safety standard and increase your oversight in higher risk markets. 

Partnering with EDC 

Export Development Canada (EDC) expects our customers to meet their responsibility to manage the risks to the health and safety of everyone in your workplace. We may request documentation that confirms compliance by a business or its suppliers to applicable health and safety laws and standards, and also the existence of a health and safety management system.  


The business case > Benefits and opportunities for your company

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Reduces risk 

Have you thought about the potential consequences to workers, communities or the environment if safety hazards aren’t adequately managed? Roughly 2.8 million people die from health and safety accidents or diseases every year. Injuries, illnesses and fatalities resulting from safety violations can forever damage your company’s reputation at home and abroad. Robust health and safety practices can reduce hazards, protect your workers and prevent injuries, illnesses and fatalities.

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Boosts attendance and engagement

With better protection of workers comes better workplace morale, greater employee engagement and less downtime. Strong safety practices will also help attract and retain skilled workers. 

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Increases trust among customers, investors and the community

Increasingly, customers want to buy products and services that are produced ethically and in safe and healthy workplaces. A safety-first business can also make a favourable impression on current and potential customers, as well as prospective investors who often consider employee conditions and the work environment. 

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Improves productivity 

A workplace that adheres to all health and safety standards is more likely to have more productive employees who can complete more work efficiently. Equipment that’s properly maintained and in accordance with safety standards is also less likely to break down.

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Reduces costs

Poor workplace health and safety practices can result in both direct and indirect costs to your business. Direct costs can include fines, legal fees and compensation costs. Indirect costs could include delays of projects and schedules, equipment damage, as well as loss of skilled workers who opt for a safer working environment. 



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What you can do

While it’s impossible to reduce all occupational risks, your employees, customers and partners expect you to create an environment that’s as safe as possible. Compliance is just the beginning. It’s important to understand the issues specific to your industry and your company and develop good health and safety practices that address the risks and opportunities that exist.

Identifying hazards, establishing education and training programs, setting objectives and measuring your progress are all crucial components to a robust health and safety system.

Whether you’re just starting to gain an understanding of your responsibilities or looking for ways to make your operations safer, taking action can protect your employees and your business—while sending a positive message about your commitment to safety leadership.  

Questions to consider

  • Are you aware of your health and safety responsibilities? 
  • Depending on the size of your business, do you need to appoint a competent individual or group to oversee health and safety performance? 
  • Do you have processes to engage your employees in identifying possible workplace hazards? 
  • Do you have a training program in place to help workers do their jobs safely?  
  • If you have contractors, suppliers and other partners, do you assess their health and safety performance? 


Take action

Use EDC’s Health and Safety Checklist for ideas on how to elevate your safety practices.  



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Date modified: 2023-12-07