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Six tips for starting a safety committee

Experts offer guidance

Starting a safety committee
Image: Michael Sharkey

As a member of two safety and health committees, Jordan Hollingsworth understands their value.

“Maybe you’re not the decision-maker, but you might have a great idea, and you might be able to bring it to the table,” said Hollingsworth, field operations manager for the Indianapolis-based Safety Management Group. “Then that great idea gets implemented across the board.”

Hollingsworth said such committees serve as a valuable launching pad for new ideas, as well as identifying safety concerns in an organization.

“It’s a conduit for that voice,” he said.

So, how do you start a safety and health committee at your workplace? Safety+Health asked several experts and came up with six guidelines.

1Know where to start

A safety and health committee needs advocates throughout the organization. To Steven L. Greeley, director of the Workplace Safety and Health Division at the Maine Department of Labor, the starting point is crystal clear.

“Management commitment is the first place to start,” Greeley said, “primarily because you could have somebody who would be able to dedicate resources to the committee.”

Those resources may not include immediate financial support, but could be just as valuable.

“It’s (having) someone who could make sure that worker on the machine will be given time to leave the machine to go to the meetings,” Greeley said. “If it’s not something that has top management commitment behind it, people might not be able to get away from their work.”

Another important initial step is checking state and local rules and labor contracts regarding safety committees, said Erica Frey-Hoyer, process improvement manager at Packaging Corp. of America in Salem, OR.

Nebraska is the only state that requires all employers to have a safety and health committee, according to OSHA. Meanwhile, 15 other states mandate such committees under various provisions. (For a full list, see “Safety committee regulations by state.”)

Additionally, review your organization’s policies and procedures with human resources, author John P. Spath recommends in his book, “Building a Better Safety and Health Committee.”

“Although most human resource organizations will not be a barrier to operating an effective safety and health committee,” Spath wrote, “they may have practices that govern pay, time away from their normal job assignment, meeting attendance and other routines that establish internal parameters the committee may have to manage.”

2State your purpose

When building a committee, documenting bylaws, responsibilities, procedures and goals is a must. “They should include a standard agenda that would be followed each meeting,” Frey-Hoyer said. She recommends including specific details into the bylaws.

“For example, safety committee meetings will be held the third Wednesday of the month and will rotate between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. to accommodate employees on different shifts,” she said.

The bylaws also can include specific activities that will happen monthly, quarterly or annually, and the person responsible for each activity.

3Get organized

A common flaw of new committees is disorganization.

“The safety committee that doesn’t lay down the groundwork and the expectations first, they probably fail,” Hollingsworth said.

Frey-Hoyer encourages new committees to focus on documentation and reporting. “An important bylaw every committee should have is specifying who and how the meeting minutes will be captured and distributed,” she said. “Remember, if it’s not written down, it never happened.”

Determine how long committee members will serve, and consider staggering members’ terms. “If you’re cycling out members, don’t cycle out every member at the same time,” Hollingsworth said. Frey-Hoyer suggested about 10% to 20% turnover each year, which will help maintain continuity while bringing a “steady stream of new ideas.”

4Choose members wisely

Two common types of committees are employee-only and joint committees, in which both workers and management are represented, according to the National Safety Council “Supervisors’ Safety Manual, 10th Edition.”

“Either type gives workers a chance to contribute to the overall safety and health of an organization,” the manual states, “but the joint committee is usually more effective in a team-based organization. Cooperation is maximized when worker and management committee members volunteer or are elected by their peers.”

Free online training from Oregon OSHA

Oregon OSHA offers free online training courses intended for safety committee members, and recently created a webpage that offers access to the courses.

According to the agency, the courses – Safety Meetings and Committees, Accident Investigation and Hazard Identification – are intended to provide training for workers either looking to learn about safety committees or wanting to supplement their knowledge. They are available in English and Spanish.

Find out more at

Greeley is a proponent of joint committees. “Any time you can get labor and management working together, it’s a benefit,” he said. “There’s a certain trust there.”

Having equal representation also helps workers who may be reluctant to approach management with safety issues. “For whatever reason, they don’t feel comfortable,” he said. “With the committee, that person might approach a co-worker (on the committee) where they might not approach a manager.”

Frey-Hoyer suggested naming a front-line worker to serve as the committee chairperson or co-chair with a management representative to advocate for the workforce.

Committees should ensure representation throughout the organization. Experts said that entails participation from different departments, shifts or trades.

Members rotating off the committee, meanwhile, can be an additional influence by extending the safety and health message. “As you bring somebody new on, you’ve got this new ally,” Greeley said. “You’re also putting more allies out into the workforce that are no longer on the committee, but they’re still very much committed to what the committee does.”

5Plan ahead

“Effective committee meetings don’t just happen,” Spath wrote in his book. “They result from a continuous planning cycle.” That cycle, he said, begins with determining the desired purpose(s) of each meeting and whether it can be met in the meeting’s time frame.

Next, decide which members can share knowledge about the planned meeting’s subjects, or if subject matter experts should be invited.

Distributing an agenda in advance helps all members come prepared. “Documents help keep people on target,” Greeley said.

Following an agenda will keep committee meetings flowing smoothly and ensure tasks are being completed. “I like something going out (before each meeting) that’s going to remind people, ‘We have a meeting coming up,’” Greeley said. “‘These were the action items from last month. These were the people who were responsible for following up on these items.’ When you come to that next meeting, people are prepared to work on something.”

Hollingsworth recommended laying out a schedule a year ahead, with milestone dates for various goals. Spath considers a future list a good way to add an inventory of new ideas or topics that can be maintained and discussed in the months ahead.

6Stress accountability

Being a committee member comes with a responsibility to the organization and co-workers to improve the safety and health culture. This is where some committees can fall short.

“When you put down an action item, make sure you put somebody’s name to it,” Greeley said. “It shouldn’t always be the chairperson or your safety manager. You’re all part of the committee, and people can take a piece of that.”

Hearing many different voices in an organization represented is one of the biggest benefits of starting a committee. “An engaged safety committee will build the safety culture within an organization by improving working conditions, safe work practices and safety programs,” Frey-Hoyer said.

A committee also should have one other important trait – uniqueness.

Tailor the committee by setting meeting times and dates that best fit everyone’s schedules, and create feedback opportunities for employees in any role and at any level.

“Do something that works for your company,” Greeley said. “Make it your committee.”

Safety committee regulations by state

Sixteen states require employers to have safety and health committees – 15 under varying circumstances. Below is a list of those states and their provisions.

Alabama: If requested by employees
Connecticut: More than 25 employees or a high incident rate
Hawaii: Employers with 25 or more workers must have a committee or “a person designated and trained by the employer for the facility’s safety and health program.”
Louisiana: An employer’s safety plan has requirements for “designation of employees responsible for safety” and regular safety meetings.
Minnesota: More than 25 employees or a high incident rate
Montana: More than five employees
Nebraska: Required of all employers
Nevada: More than 25 employees
New Hampshire: More than 15 employees
New York: Group dividend plan (Employer enrollment in safety and loss prevention incentive program)
North Carolina: High incident rate or more than 10 employees
Oregon: More than 10 employees (Meetings required for employers with 10 or fewer employees.)
Tennessee: High incident rate
Vermont: High incident rate
Washington: More than 10 employees
West Virginia: High incident rate

Note: Although California doesn’t require employers to have a safety and health committee, having one puts them in compliance with the state’s Injury and Illness Prevention Program communication rule.

Source: OSHA

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