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Making safety connections

March 1, 2010

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Safety committees serve as an important link between the workforce and management

By Kyle W. Morrison, associate editor

KEY POINTS
  • Safety committees should have a purpose, and its success should be measurable.
  • Choose committee members carefully, and ensure they receive proper training.
  • A committee should be composed of a variety of individuals with diverse skills.

Safety is a big job. Hazard recognition and control, employee training, staying up to date with regulations, and ensuring countless standard requirements are followed can be a monumental task for any one person or department.

However, those tasks do not have to be limited to a single safety manager or department. Safety committees composed of trained staff from various departments can provide a worksite with more eyes and ears to ensure on-the-job safety.

“Historically, safety committees have been the cornerstone of a safety program,” said JoAnn Dankert, a senior consultant for the National Safety Council. “Nobody knows the hazards better than the people who work with them.” Although some states require a workplace to have an active safety committee, legal responsibility alone should not be what influences the decision to establish one. According to Dankert, an effective safety committee can bring many benefits to an organization, including:

  • Employee involvement
  • Fewer injuries
  • Hazard recognition, evaluation and control
  • Increased morale
  • Lower incident rates
  • Lower workers’ compensation costs

Dankert cautioned that safety committees cannot be haphazardly thrown together and expected to work miracles. Organizations must follow a number of important steps and details when building and maintaining a safety committee.

Purpose-driven

A few years ago, power company Dynegy Inc. was experiencing safety incidents at its Danskammer station in Newburgh, NY. In response, a safety committee was formed with a central purpose: to recognize real hazards. A small group of employees was charged with inspecting a certain section of the facility and relaying potential hazards back to Ed Hall, maintenance manager at the station, who would ensure corrective actions were taken.

Before the safety committee was formed, Hall said, employees may have noticed a safety issue but did not necessarily report it. “They see something, they jot it down, and they may or may not tell someone,” he said. “[Reporting hazards] was not their assignment for the day.”

For members of the Danskammer station’s safety committee, however, it is their assignment. According to Hall, formation of the facility’s hazard recognition safety committee played a prominent role in identifying and mitigating hazards.

Many companies grapple with safety committees because the committees lack a purpose, according to Dankert. Something must drive the committee, be it hazard recognition, hazard mitigation, safety training, or a rewards and recognition program – and it need not be the same for every organization. “What’s really critical about safety committees is that they have a purpose,” Dankert said. Having a purpose can help keep safety committee meetings from turning into complaint sessions. “We’ve struggled with making safety committees effective and actionable, rather than just a meeting,” said Majo Thurman, director of environmental health and safety for Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation Inc.

According to the National Safety Council, a safety team’s typical goal is to address process-based issues that cause incidents, and should complement an organization’s safety and health policy. A committee may break down into smaller groups to tackle issues as they arise, such as updating lockout/tagout procedures or ergonomics, Dankert said.

Several of Rockwell Automation’s manufacturing sites employ the idea of forming smaller teams for specific issues. “What we have been focusing very much on is having multiple committees where small groups are focused on single things,” Thurman said. “Empowering smaller groups worked better.” Some of Rockwell Automation’s safety teams form for a certain task, accomplish it and dissolve; others are ongoing.

Members

Once the purpose of the committee or team is established, the right people must be chosen to staff it. “People are very picky about selecting an emergency response team because a lot of training has to go into that. People don’t often look at safety committees in the same way,” Dankert said. “Safety committee people need training too.”

Members need to know the purpose of the committee, and must have the skills and knowledge to fulfill that purpose, according to Dankert. Training should be provided if any members lack the skills needed to accomplish the committee’s purpose. However, that does not necessarily mean they all have to be safety experts. Members can provide other useful qualities such as strong organization skills or being detail-oriented.

The National Safety Council advises organizations to consider the following when choosing team members:

  • Select people who are enthusiastic about the team’s purpose.
  • Represent every department and shift.
  • Include people with various levels of authority – ideally a 50/50 split of management and employees.
  • Select people with a variety of skills and expertise, as well as people who have the power to implement changes

Although employee involvement may be a safety committee’s goal, Dankert stressed the importance of having a “decision-maker” on the committee who can give approval to spend money or make improvements in the facility. “Sometimes safety committee members get frustrated because they solve a problem, but then they don’t have the authority to make that happen,” she said.

The size of the team may depend on the individual needs of the organization or the purpose of the committee. Generally speaking, a team of eight to 12 people is a manageable size, Dankert said. Members typically are volunteers, but it is important to select individuals who want to make a difference.

“If you have someone there for just a bitch session or an itch to cause trouble, then you need to address that,” said Len Anderson, safety and environmental manager for Duluth, MN-based BendTec. Members may be frustrated about a number of things, so be sure to listen to their complaints, he said.

Meeting structure

Before meetings begin, figure out the mechanics, such as who will run the meeting, who will keep the minutes and what will happen if a member cannot attend. Set up rules for attendance, and remove people from the committee if they routinely skip meetings. Anderson recommended creating an agenda to keep meetings organized and members focused on goals.

Some organizations have active and energetic members who have served on a safety committee for years. It is good to have such people on a committee, but it is also important to bring in fresh members. Dankert recommended setting up a rotation system in which new members can join the committee and serve with more experienced members. An added benefit to this system is that people who are rotated off a committee have been trained, and can continue to help identify hazards and voice concerns.

Tips for successful safety meetings
Safety meetings are an important aspect of safety committees, helping to communicate safety and health information. The National Safety Council provides some tips for helping to ensure your safety meetings are effective:
  • Meet at least once a month, and keep meetings short – less than an hour.
  • Prepare an agenda in advance of the meeting, and follow it to ensure the meeting stays on track and everything is covered. Distribute the agenda before the meeting begins.
  • Take attendance, and make sure to introduce visitors and explain why they may be in attendance.
  • Update members on what has occurred since the last meeting. Be sure to relay any critical or important information immediately.
  • Discuss new projects the team should address and assign tasks to be completed by the next meeting.
  • Develop action plans so everyone knows what is required to be done, by whom, and what is needed to complete the project and when it should be completed.
  • Maintain meeting minutes, and post the minutes of each meeting.

Occasionally, a safety committee has a two-tier structure. One tier is the safety committee, made up primarily of hourly workers; the other is a steering committee, consisting primarily of management. This system can provide a checks-and-balances approach, Dankert said. The safety committee may bring forth a problem and recommend a corrective action that could be expensive or hard to implement. The steering committee, which should be accountable to someone, can review the issue and decide on the best course of action.

For instance, a safety committee could solve a hazard through engineering controls, but the steering committee may find administrative controls would work equally as well. “A lot of times we start off and want a Cadillac when a Chevy will do,” Dankert said.

Duties, support

A safety committee’s duties – and its authority – depend on the committee’s purpose. At Dynegy’s Danskammer station, safety committee members look for hazards that could potentially lead to an injury or incident. It could be simple things, such as hanging wires or a low pipe. These possibilities are reported back to Hall, who then takes corrective action. If committee members spot anything major, it is corrected immediately, Hall said.

At BendTec, Anderson said his goal is to get members to look further into an incident to determine the root cause and prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future. An incident may have been caused by a trip hazard, but the root cause could be a housekeeping issue. “You try to get them looking beyond the surface,” he said.

Quite often, a safety committee provides another outlet for workers to field complaints and report hazards. Employees who are uncomfortable taking issues to their supervisor may find it easier to speak with a peer serving on the committee, according to Dankert. In some organizations, safety committee members’ photographs are posted so workers at the facility can recognize them.

Anderson agreed, stating that employees sometimes may feel intimidated by the prospect of reporting a hazard or are afraid their boss or supervisor will chastise them. Safety committee members provide a channel outside the normal chain of command to report issues without fear of ridicule. “The value is in the involvement, and it gives you a conduit up and down the perceived hierarchy,” Anderson said.

Measuring success

As with many other aspects of a safety committee, the measure of its success is tied to its purpose. “It has to be seen as effective and not just employees getting a reason to move away from the work floor,” Thurman said.

The measurements can vary. For a committee with the goal of reducing injuries and illnesses, review the statistics to see if the committee has been effective. “What I found was people like statistics,” Hall said. “They like a list and they like to see what’s completed, and they really like to see the items they put on the list are completed.”

In determining a safety team’s success, the National Safety Council provides a few guidelines:

  • Agree on what to measure, and build the measurements into a safety committee’s implementation plan.
  • Determine who will take the measurements, when and how often.
  • Take regular measurements.
  • Keep a log.

Involvement

Safety committees can be a good way to get employees involved. At Dart Container in Corona, CA, employees took safety committees to the next step by ensuring everyone at work was involved in safety.

“We do everything a safety committee does – we just do it with everybody,” said Virginia Smith, the facility’s safety coordinator. At the plant, all employees serve on one of the 20 safety teams, each with its own responsibilities. The teams are made up of a mix of employees who all work the same shift, and each team (between 20 and 40 members) is assigned a supervisor as a “team coach” who facilitates monthly meetings.

Smith said Dart Container management found this approach allowed for greater involvement among employees and led to more input and better decision-making for correcting issues that arise. Every team performs audits, which allows the committee to note patterns across shifts or departments. This also can lead to a task force being formed to figure out the best solution to an issue. “If you get all this input, and you see that they’re identifying the same sort of problems on different shifts, then you have to sit back and say that there’s a different way to do this,” Smith said.

Dankert said broader programs such as those at Dart Container are beneficial not only for employee involvement but also for improving safety throughout a facility. “There really should be a much lower chance of injury because everyone is engaged in the safety process,” she said.

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