Making Safety Committees Work
Establishing workplace-safety committees is one way management can encourage employees to participate in implementing and monitoring the company’s safety program.
Typical responsibilities of workplace-safety committees include:
• Developing safe work practices;
• Crafting written safety programs;
Leading safety training;
• Conducting workplace inspections and safety audits;
• Reviewing incidents, near misses, accident investigation reports, claim summaries and loss analyses to prevent reoccurrences of similar incidents;
• Establishing dispute resolution procedures;
• Proposing and creating safety checklists;
• Promoting employees’ interests in health and safety issues; and
• Providing a forum in which labor and management can discuss health and safety issues and collaborate on solutions.
Ultimately the purpose of safety committees is to help reduce the risk of workplace injuries and illnesses and ensure compliance with federal and state health and safety regulations.
“A properly functioning safety committee fulfills several functions,” said Earl Capps, HR and safety manager at Filters Fast, a retail and distribution company in the Charlotte, N.C., metro area. “Committee members should be able to identify problems, use their range of insights to seek solutions, have the authority and expertise to implement needed policies which ensure an effective safety program and the scope of oversight necessary to ensure changes made are effective.”
In states regulated by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers are not required to establish safety committees.
Some state-plan OSHA states may require safety committees with specific provisions; company execs should verify with their regional OSHA office whether employers must have a safety committee.
Starting a Safety Committee
If you want to have a truly effective safety committee, you must be prepared to invest time and energy in developing it.
Before convening the first meeting, map out your objectives for the committee, goals and responsibilities, and the resources you have available.
Safety committees need a specific purpose, said Curtis Chambers, CSP, owner of OSHA Training Services, a provider of OSHA compliance training. That could be reviewing accident records and recommending high-frequency areas to be studied or conducting job-safety analyses. The committee could even be tasked with creating and running a behavior-based safety program, he said. “Just make sure the committee has a specific purpose, and disband the committee or give them a different purpose once they achieve their objectives. In fact, having several ad-hoc safety committees versus just one can get more people involved in the safety process.”
“The safety committee must be valued by the highest levels of management,” advised Robyn Morrison, executive director of WorkSafeMT, a nonprofit safety-advocacy organization based in Helena, Mont. “This means that top-level management fully supports the time spent by members of the committee on safety-committee activities and that the safety committee has an adequate budget.”
Safety committees should be composed of a mixed population of employees and managers, with representatives from both production and administration.
“Ideally, a safety committee has a good cross-section of employees from all levels of the company,” Morrison said.
Capps said key participants should be the safety manager, HR staff, representatives from senior management, key supervisors and select junior leaders.
The importance of including all affected groups is paramount, said Chambers. “It does no good to make suggestions for process changes without considering areas such as purchasing or engineering—they may be aware of operational or budgetary constraints that must be considered.”
Committees need a chairperson who is skilled at leading teams as well as discussions. “This isn't always the senior person or the highest-ranking member,” Capps noted. “There’s no room for passive leadership; you need someone to move things along.”
The elected committee officers must be taught how to establish a safe conversation environment that allows introverts to speak out and prevents extroverts from dominating the meetings, Morrison advised. Sometimes it may be necessary to hire an outside expert in group facilitation for the formation stage, she said.
Take care to determine the optimal size of your committee and the specific roles each member will play.
If your company has multiple locations, you may want to establish a safety committee at each one. In some states this will be a requirement, depending on the size of your workforce or the specific industry involved.
“Putting people on the committee who can actively contribute to identifying problems or working toward solutions is key,” said Capps. “Additionally, committee members must be able to work in a group setting with others outside of their workgroups and sometimes outside of their departments. Inclusion is important but so is effectiveness. If they can’t help solve a problem, they don’t need to be on the committee.”
Maintaining the Committee’s Effectiveness
To have an impact, WorkSafeMT recommends that safety committees do the following:
• Hold regular meetings, following a consistent schedule;
• Set clear meeting agendas, publish them in advance, and follow them;
• Take meeting minutes that summarize the issues discussed, the proposed actions and the people responsible for following up on each item. Minutes should be published and provided to each committee member, as well as made available to all employees;
• Require members to attend all meetings except in an emergency;
• Publicize the committee’s accomplishments;
• Set both short-term (one to six months) and long-term goals. These should be measurable, achievable and reviewed periodically to determine the group’s effectiveness;
• Improve cooperative inspections by including workers and management representatives;
• Address legitimate safety issues only. The committee should not be a general gripe forum; and
• Be positive.
One essential for launching a successful safety committee is publicizing the committee’s formation and offering an introductory training meeting for all employees, to communicate the roles and responsibilities of “their” safety committee, said Morrison.
“Committee members should do their share by working to keep abreast of current issues and keep an eye out for potential problems and come up with new ideas to tackle existing problems,” said Capps.
Mistakes to Avoid
There are many reasons why a safety committee loses or never attains effectiveness.
“I’ve seen a few safety committees succeed, but I’ve seen many more flounder after their initial enthusiasm wears off and they realize the committee is not functioning well,” said Chambers.
Failure to articulate a purpose and top-heavy management representation are among mistakes to avoid when establishing a safety committee, warned SFM Mutual Insurance Company of Bloomington, Minn.
In a document developed for its clients, SFM cited the top 10 most common pitfalls of safety committees:
Undefined roles. A well-structured safety committee with a clear purpose and knowledgeable members who are aware of their responsibilities will be most effective. Craft a written agreement or mission statement that clearly defines the committee’s functions and member duties. Among other things, it should ensure that the committee meets regulatory requirements.
“The most common mistake I see is when a company or organization sets up a safety committee just for the sake of having a safety committee,” said Chambers. “Perhaps an insurance loss-control rep or safety consultant suggests one or, in the case of some state OSHA programs, it may be required. Yet, the committee was not set up with a specific purpose in mind. When that happens, the committee is usually not going to be effective and will probably not survive too long.”
Lack of training. Members should demonstrate a general understanding of technical safety and health issues, familiarity with data gathering, and experience with group dynamics and meeting participation. “Asking someone to perform an accident investigation or job-safety analysis without training is asking for trouble,” Chambers cautioned. “The team will be more effective if they are trained on what to do and how to do it.”
Insufficient budget. A committee should be considered an investment, and management needs to provide adequate tools and resources. The committee may need funds for safety and health fairs, wellness programs, and other safety activities and incentives.
Inadequate size. The size of your organization and its hazard potential should determine the size of your committee. “It is a good idea to keep the safety committee small so that every member can participate actively,” SFM advised. Subcommittees can be established for special projects.
Lack of formal meeting agenda. Preparing and disseminating an agenda in advance keeps everyone on the committee cognizant of the meeting’s objectives and more likely to stay on task.
Lack of communication. Publicize meeting minutes and committee actions to both employees and managers.
Lack of follow-up. A committee’s reputation depends on the members doing what they promise.
Lackluster participation. Get all members involved, and impress upon them exactly what is needed to attain a safer workplace. Committees should find ways to involve all departments or workgroups.
Management domination. While management’s commitment is essential, company leaders should not stifle meetings and decisions.
Unable to effect change. Committee members should be empowered to make changes for the health and safety of all employees—this is the main reason the group exists.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.
Have HR-related questions and concerns? Get access to essential forms, policies and guides, plus a live call center, at ToolkitHR.com, powered by HCN and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).