Effective safety committees
Are you tapping into workers’ knowledge?
- Research has shown that organizations with a higher percentage of its workforce on safety committees have lower injury and illness rates.
- Safety committees with strong and visible upper management support are more likely to make a meaningful impact on workplace safety.
- An effective safety committee leader is someone who can facilitate a meeting without dominating it or allowing others to, and encourages participation among all members.
"I had an uncle who was a timber faller for many years. After he retired, I remember him telling my father, ‘I worked for this company for 35 years, and they hired me from the neck down. They could have had the rest if they’d just asked.’”
Mark E. Hurliman, a Certified Safety and Health Manager and program manager for Oregon OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program and Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program, shared his uncle’s anecdote as an example of the potential lost when organizations do not use safety committees to involve employees in their safety programs. Front-line workers have the most experience with how a task is performed every day and can help identify hazards that others may overlook, Hurliman said, and safety committees allow organizations to tap into this knowledge “from the neck up.”
Currently, not all organizations are required to have safety committees. However, employers meeting certain criteria in some states must establish a committee to help improve worker safety (see “Selection of state safety committee requirements” on p. 57). Additionally, some states provide incentives – such as reductions in workers’ compensation premiums – for organizations with established safety committees.
So, what characteristics make up an effective safety committee?
Committee size and structure
Safety committees range in size and structure based on the organization’s number of employees, worksites and hazards present, but certain arrangements have been found to be more effective. According to a 2008 study published in the journal New Solutions (Vol. 18, No. 4), organizations that had safety committees made up of more hourly workers than managers had lower injury and illness rates. Researchers also found that organizations with a higher percentage of their workforce on safety committees had better rates.
The Maine Department of Labor states that ideal safety committees have representation from all departments and shifts, as well as from both management and the labor force.
Ben Bloom is safety consultant principal for Minnesota OSHA. Bloom said many organizations that participate in the Minnesota STAR (MNSTAR) program – which recognizes organizations with safety and health systems that go above and beyond OSHA requirements – have multiple safety committees. Some organizations assign a committee to each area in the facility, such as the warehouse, production area and offices. Having multiple committees is a great way to involve more workers in an organization’s safety and health efforts, but clear guidelines or a centralized committee must be established to help prevent potential overlap, Bloom said.
Effective task delegation by a centralized committee allows a subcommittee to allocate more time and effort to a specific workplace problem. Dave Ferkul, workplace safety consultation supervisor for Minnesota OSHA, spoke of a nursing home that established multiple subcommittees to address specific issues related to staff and resident safety. One subcommittee focused on safe patient-handling equipment, and for fresh ideas they visited other nursing homes to seek out examples of alternative equipment. The subcommittee reported its findings to the central safety committee, with upper management present, and a resulting investment in new equipment reduced workplace injuries, Ferkul said.
Committee leaders and member participation
An effective committee leader can facilitate a meeting without dominating it or allowing someone else to do so, Ferkul said. Instead of dictating how a discussion should proceed – which is not conducive to member participation and feedback – committee chairs should focus on encouraging participation among all members, he added.
Effective committee heads also should establish basic ground rules and ensure meetings do not get out of control. Rick Long, safety lead of the Dillard, OR-based Roseburg Forest Products’ Dillard Plywood Division, described how his company used detailed agendas and time limits to turn around its approach to committee meetings.
In the late 1990s, safety committee meetings at the company usually became shouting matches between labor and management representatives, and would sometimes last four or more hours, Long said. In 1999, the company’s approach to safety committees evolved: Overly lengthy, unstructured meetings were replaced by streamlined meetings lasting one hour or less. Safety committee chairs were voted in by hourly employees and given control over each meeting’s agenda. Committee members also began voting on a written charter and flow-chart featuring each member and their responsibilities.
“Basically, we learned how to use agendas, how to stay on track and stay on time,” Long said. “If there was an outstanding issue we couldn’t agree on, we learned to ‘put them in the parking lot’ and revisit [at] the next meeting.”
As a result, he said, employees and management feel they have equal say when it comes to safety, he said. “Everyone has a voice and is allowed to speak it, as long as they do it respectfully.”
Safety committees may struggle with maintaining member enthusiasm over time. Tim Morse, professor emeritus for the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, recommends the following techniques to prevent or address committee member burnout:
- Rotate the committee’s focus among a variety of topics, such as ergonomics for a period of time, followed by chemical hazard reduction, and so on.
- Bring in new committee members when the committee becomes stale. Also, periodically invite non-committee front-line workers to participate in a meeting and discuss any day-to-day hazards they encounter.
- Invite safety committees from similar organizations to visit and help identify hazards.