Safety committees are a longstanding part of the safety tradition, but do they really add value? Though not officially required by OSHA, safety committees are a prerequisite to participating in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program and are mandatory in several states and countries in the European Union. Additionally, employers are often offered a discount on their workers’ compensation premiums for having a safety committee in place.
Not surprisingly then, safety committees are ubiquitous. Throughout my safety career, I’ve rarely run into a company with more than 100 employees that didn’t have a safety committee. Unfortunately, effectively performing safety committees are also a rarity. Many committees limit themselves to periodic inspections that focus on easily observable but low-level hazardous conditions (e.g., housekeeping, extension cords, etc.). This leads to committees ignoring the processes for how work is performed and the root causes of deficiencies. I’ve also witnessed a disturbing number of committees whose meetings were little more than gripe sessions bemoaning (justifiably or not) their unresponsive and uncaring management. These unproductive examples do not have to be the norm. If your company commits the time and trouble it takes to establish a safety committee, why not also ensure they play a viable role in safety efforts? If you believe your safety committee(s) to be ineffectual in adding appreciable value, the following suggestions will help correct their efficiency and position within your organization.
First Things First
Make identifying improvement opportunities within a team context a priority for every employee. Job announcements, job descriptions, employee onboarding, and training should all emphasize the message that working as a cohesive team is an integral part of the job.
Why Only One?
An obvious indicator of an organization’s determination to go above and beyond OSHA requirements is for their safety and health systems to incorporate multiple safety committees. Organizations can assign a committee to separate facility areas (e.g., warehouse, production areas, maintenance shops, and offices). Having multiple committees makes perfect safety sense. Building on the idea of strength in numbers, this practical effort involves more workers in an organization’s safety and health program and is a great way to address ongoing safety needs such as procedure development and review, incident investigation, inspections/ assessments, and corrective action management. The number of committees is dictated by your specific needs and the size of your company. For example, forming standing committees may be necessary to address recurrent safety issues while additionally forming ad hoc committees to address emergent issues such as new process risk analysis, unfavorable incident trends, ergonomic issues, etc. There is no “correct” number, but limiting a business to just one safety committee also limits the opportunities to engage the workforce in continuous safety improvement.
Building Effective Committees
The following specific suggestions are offered to help your company maintain committee enthusiasm and effectiveness:
- To prevent burnout, periodically rotate or bring in new committee members.
- Invite non-committee front-line workers to participate in meetings and discuss the real-time safety issues that impact their work.
- Meet with safety committees from other departments or organizations to include fresh perspectives in identifying improvement opportunities.
- Involve management, or “joint committees.” Management participation is essential to ensure realistic decisions and recommendations are being made. When suggested actions are not cost-effective and/or seldom used, committee members’ enthusiasm can turn to cynicism. Uncommunicative or unsupportive management will ultimately destroy committee effectiveness.
- Don’t get in the way. Safety professionals will benefit from the information gathered in front-line employee committee engagement, but they should not be leading the discussion. Workers who retain committee ownership maximize involvement and gain pride in accomplishment. Safety professionals, therefore, should function more as expert advisors than leaders. Safety professionals can assist committees by providing training in root cause analysis, accident investigation, and how to conduct effective meetings. They also can develop systems that ensure committee actions and recommendations are tracked, given due dates, assigned responsible owners, and appropriately closed. The quickest way to kill trust and let the air out of a safety committee is allowing the growth of a perception that their input is ignored and/or not appreciated.
Safety committees are an excellent way to drive both worker engagement and continuous safety improvement. How you establish your committee(s) depends on the size, complexity, and culture of your organization. Some companies require that committee members are elected, routinely rotated to other committees, and/or that each committee be headed by a management representative. There is no magic formula, and no committee framework should be etched in stone. Committees should be sufficiently able to evolve and improve over time, the same as any other dynamic company function. The most important element is management’s commitment to communication and action based on the safety committee’s input. The bottom line – if you’re not involving your workforce in the active improvement of safety efforts, your most valuable safety assets are being wasted.
Mr. Loud’s over 40 years of safety experience includes 15 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he served as the supervisor of Safety and Loss Control for a large commercial nuclear facility and later as manager of the corporate nuclear safety oversight body for all three of TVA’s nuclear sites. At Los Alamos National Laboratory he headed the independent assessment organization responsible for safety, health, environmental protection, and security oversight of all laboratory operations.
Mr. Loud is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferences. He is the author of numerous papers and articles. Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.