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September 16, 2016
Tips and tactics for a stronger, more effective safety committee

Of course you have a safety committee. But how effective is it? Does it satisfy a state requirement with minimal creativity or innovation? Is it your ticket to a discount on your workers’ comp coverage? Or does it actually enhance your safety performance, giving employees at all levels an opportunity to lead and engage in the safety process?

What elements go into making a safety committee successful? This Compliance Report delivers reminders, tips, and best practices. Be sure to share the content with your committee and use it as a departure point for improvements at your site or company.

Giving everyone a voice

According to employment lawyer and safety professional Adele Abrams, a safety and health committee is “an organizational structure where members represent a group, giving everyone a voice.” Committees aid and advise management and employees about safety and health pertaining to a plant or company operation.”

An effective safety committee encourages safety awareness, gets a large number of employees actively involved in the safety program, and motivates employees to follow sound safety practices. An effective employee safety structure provides a feedback mechanism to identify and correct new safety hazards at the earliest stage. Once the safety committee structure is in place and working well, it is a natural vehicle for employee involvement, preparation, and introduction of new safety efforts.

There are no federal requirements for safety committees in private sector workplaces. However, many states require them. In other states, employers may get a discount on their workers’ compensation premiums if they have a safety committee in place.

Tasks can include monitoring, training, conducting investigations, and developing innovative solutions to safety issues. Abrams emphasizes that a committee meeting is not a safety meeting where all employees or managers are present; rather, representatives are limited in number. At some sites, committee membership is strictly voluntary, while at other workplaces, management may recommend or volunteer employees for participation.

Committee membership and makeup vary greatly by size, structure, purpose, hazards, and the make-up of employees and managers. One study found that safety committees with a heavier concentration of hourly workers had lower injury and illness rates. Other research found that sites with a higher percentage of employees were found to have better rates.

Diverse benefits

Safety committees can help achieve a variety of objectives, not all of which are directly related to worker protection. Among them:

  • Big picture. Committees that represent all functions or departments allow the organization to take an overall look at safety requirements and foresee problems that might otherwise cause difficulties.
  • Sounding board. The committee is a visible and approachable body for safety or health complaints, suggestions, etc.
  • Central coordination. With management direction, much of the coordination of safety activities can be accomplished by the safety committee, which shares with management the responsibilities for implementing and monitoring the safety process.

WorkSafeMT, a nonprofit safety organization, describes a committee’s purpose like this:

  • To promote and maintain the interest of employees in health and safety issues;
  • To educate managers, supervisors, and employees through awareness and training activities for which they have primary responsibility;
  • To help make health and safety activities an integral part of the organization’s operating procedures, cultures, and programs;
  • To provide an opportunity for the free discussion of health and safety problems and solutions;
  • To inform and educate employees and supervisors about health and safety issues, new standards, research, etc.;
  • To help reduce the risk of workplace injuries and illnesses; and
  • To help ensure compliance with federal and state health and safety standards.

Although there are many ways to measure the success of your committee (and your plan needs to spell these out), the following are basic levels of effectiveness:

  • Meetings are consistently scheduled and held on a regular basis.
  • Clear meeting agendas are created, published in advance, and followed.
  • Minutes summarize the issues discussed, proposed action items, and the individuals responsible for follow-up on each item. Minutes are published and provided to each committee member and are made available to all employees.
  • Members are required to attend all meetings, except in case of emergency. If a member cannot attend, an alternate is sent. Attendance is taken at each meeting and is recorded in the minutes. Some committees record and publish the names of members who did not attend as well as those who did.
  • The committee’s accomplishments are publicized. Acknowledging success reinforces the effort of members and makes others want to be part of something positive.
  • The efforts of individuals and groups throughout the organization that make significant contributions to the safety program are acknowledged.

Do this, not that

But in order to make a difference, a good safety committee has to go well beyond the basics. Like any effective organization, your safety committee needs a mission statement—a clear expression of management’s goals and expectations for the group. A mission statement also provides the committee with guidelines that help it meet requirements. According to WorkSafeMT’s Best Practices for Workplace Safety Committees, top leaders should attend safety committee meetings at least periodically, which demonstrates their interest in the safety program to both supervisors and employees. The committee should address legitimate safety issues only. Keep meetings from devolving into gripe sessions that accomplish nothing and lead to discord.

As for pitfalls, the workers’ compensation carrier SFM points to 10 common safety committee mistakes.

  • Roles are not clearly defined.
  • The committee is too big or too small.
  • New members are not adequately trained.
  • There is no formal meeting agenda.
  • Lack of follow-up on action items.
  • Inadequate communication. 
  • Domination of the committee by management.
  • Lack of employee participation.
  • Inability to adapt to change.
  • Insufficient budget.

Consultant sees it all

What about construction sites? Do they need committees?

The short answer is yes, for many of the same reasons that other types of workplaces need committees: They provide a tool for identifying and communicating hazards, they promote employee engagement, and they contribute to a positive safety environment and culture.

According to the Thomas-Fenner-Woods Agency, a provider of workers’ compensation and other types of insurance, the most obvious reason construction companies should embrace safety committees is because their industry has the highest number of injuries and fatalities. Regardless of the industry, an active safety committee shows employees that the company cares about their well-being, which in itself is a motivator that improves productivity.

In a blog post, the agency notes, “When safety records are impressive, construction job sites are safer and accidents to visitors and passersby go down. In turn, premiums for [workers’ comp and] commercial general contractor polices may plateau or even go down.” Also, a safe workplace record impresses project owners and makes a construction company a more attractive candidate for project owners.

Not so long ago, committees were only common for the largest contractors, but that’s changing as more construction companies recognize the benefits of building engagement through committees even on smaller projects.

Make Larson is an industrial hygienist with Minnesota OSHA who consults with employers, including those that are members of the state’s voluntary protection program known as Minnesota STAR (or MNSTAR). Minnesota is one of more than a dozen states that require safety and health committees by law. In some cases, these are required by state OSHA plans. In other instances, state workers’ compensation laws may require or offer a discount for employers that implement committees. (In Minnesota, all public or private employers of more than 25 employees must establish and administer a joint labor-management safety committee. Smaller employers must have committees if they have a days away, restricted, or transferred (DART) rate in the top 10 percent for the industry, or if the employer has a workers’ compensation pure premium rate in the top 25 percent.)

One positive trend Larson sees is a move away from large, all-purpose committees and toward smaller, targeted committees. Examples are committees that address lab safety, behavior-based safety, ergonomics, and accident investigation. A related practice is an increase in the level of employee engagement on those smaller committees.

“Back in the day,” says Larson, “it seems like the safety person was in charge of everything. Now we’re finding that more involvement works better. You may have management represented, or the safety and health professional as the facilitator, but the committees are often completely run by employees—the people who actually perform the work. They’re the ones who see the hazards and can make suggestions for what should be done.”

Larson is a fan of using committee members as safety trainers. One reason is that the preparation forces an individual to really master the material. It also gives employees experience as leaders and presenters. The same applies to leading walk-throughs, conducting safety audits, and performing incident investigations.

He also sees innovation in the area of motivating and incentivizing safety committee members. At one business, front-line employees are encouraged to bring ideas for improvement to the safety committee. Members analyze the suggestion and determine if it is a project they want to take on. If so, the employee who came up with the idea is given responsibility for making it happen.

The employee is charged with coming up with a workable solution, as well as determining the cost and how much it will save the company in terms of injuries, inspections, productivity, replacement training, etc. If the idea is successfully implemented, a portion of the savings is returned to the employee in the form of a bonus.

The difference a committee can make

According to Larson, workplaces that reap the most value from their committees are the ones that see the requirement as just a point of departure. “We have some VPP sites with only five employees, and they are all members of the safety committee. Everybody works together and everybody understands the benefits.” Larson says these businesses “totally get it” and find that a comprehensive commitment to safety also yields benefits in areas like productivity and culture.

Larson has seen particularly effective committees and innovative practices at VPP MNSTAR sites where he consults. He’s also seen some obstacles overcome and lessons learned. At one large facility, the safety committee was doing what it was charged to do—come up with ideas to improve the site’s safety process and outcomes. Ideas and projects were relayed to management, but no one advised the committee of any action or follow-up at the higher levels. Many months passed, and without any response, members became disheartened and stopped making suggestions.

Once a change in management occurred, it became clear that the problem had been one of communication. In fact, the communications from the safety committee were making their way up the chain, but nobody was accountable for closing the loop.

The fix was easy—the safety and health professional was given the job of facilitating communication between the committee and management. The site also came up with a computer-based tracking method to follow safety suggestions out of the committee and a simple tracking sheet that was posted for employees to see.

Manager presents biggest safety risk

In another instance, the problem wasn’t communication, but an intractable manager standing in the way of the committee’s ability to succeed. The manufacturing site had gone through many managers and was having a hard time finding one. The most recent individual brought in was totally unsupportive of employees and was determined to reduce costs at every opportunity. It struck Larson as odd that the site was one of the most profitable of the entire business.

Unfortunately, the floor employee who had spearheaded the MNSTAR initiative had put her heart and soul into the effort, then witnessed it fall apart because there was no management support. An indication of how bad things had gotten was that the safety committee had basically disbanded.

What turned things around at this site was an incident—a high-voltage electrical shock—that almost cost an employee’s life. When corporate leadership came in to investigate, it became clear that the manager had failed to support the safety program, leading to the near-tragedy. He was replaced by someone who truly cared and who took steps to revive the safety committee and reenergize its members.

“If the manager had not been replaced, we (Minnesota OSHA) would have ended our relationship with this company,” says Larson. Ironically, the existence of the electrical hazards had been raised by the safety committee and by Larson, but no one on the other end was listening.

Larson says there’s no question that a safety committee—and, for that matter, a safety program in general—can only succeed with the support of management. Attorney Adele Abrams echoes that management has the ultimate responsibility for safety and health. But a high-functioning safety committee can play an important role in assisting managers and supervisors with the success of that program.

Checking the boxes or moving the needle?

Minnesota OSHA has developed a self-evaluation checklist to identify areas of improvement for safety and health committees. We’ve provided an edited version of that document to help you assess your efforts.

  • Are safety committee leaders elected by the committee?
  • Are terms of service staggered so that at least one experienced member from labor and management is serving on the committee?
  • Are efforts made to ensure that committee members represent the major work activities/departments of the site?
  • Does the committee schedule regular meetings?
  • Does the committee work from a written (and distributed) agenda?
  • Are minutes maintained and made available to all employees?
  • Are all reports, evaluations, and recommendations made part of the minutes?
  • Does the committee have a system for collecting safety-related suggestions, hazard reports, or other information from front-line workers?
  • Does the committee help the employer evaluate the employer’s accident and illness prevention program?
  • Does the committee make written recommendations to improve safety and health?
  • Are there established procedures that allow the safety committee inspection team to identify safety and health hazards?
  • Does the committee recommend ways for the employer to eliminate or correct hazards and unsafe work practices?
  • Does the inspection team include employer and employee representatives?
  • Does the committee inspection team document in writing the location of hazards and identify them?
  • Are inspections of satellite locations done by the safety committee inspection team or by an individual designated at the location?
  • Are there procedures to review safety and health inspection reports made by the committee? Based on the results of the review, does the committee make recommendations for occupational safety and health (OSH) improvements?
  • Has the committee established procedures for investigating injuries, illnesses, fatalities, and near-misses?
  • Have the committee’s purpose, operation, and rules been discussed with all members?
  • Have committee members received appropriate training tailored to the site’s operations and processes for hazard identification and accident investigation?
  • Does management respond in a timely manner to recommendations? Is there a time frame established for responding to safety committee suggestions?
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