Creating Successful Project Safety Committees

One of the most familiar — and frustrating — aspects of life on most construction sites is the tendency of workers to participate in the strange contest called the blame game.

Anyone who has been a supervisor on a site for any length of time is certain to have encountered this odd contest. Something goes wrong, and everyone in earshot immediately begins pointing fingers at the next guy down the line. The light fixture is crooked because the ceiling installers made a mistake, but it wasn’t their fault because the electrician put the junction box in the wrong place, but it wasn’t his fault because the carpenters set the studs three inches off the prints, but it wasn’t their fault because they were following a change order that wasn’t visible because the drywall contractor finished that wall too early … and so it goes, all the way back to the architect (who wasn’t at fault, because she was only doing what the owner asked).

The blame game is always counterproductive and can be amazingly expensive, especially when it is played out repeatedly on the same jobsite. While it may be annoying most of the time, it can even become deadly when safety factors are involved. Neglect by one contractor that is ignored by another can cascade into an incident that results in injury.

That’s why owners and contractors cannot afford to have workers waste time with the blame game where safety issues are involved. A much more effective and productive use of their time is a collaborative effort to improve safety across the site — and one of the best ways to accomplish that is to develop a project safety committee.

Creating, properly funding, and empowering a project safety committee pays dividends in several important ways. Such a committee:

  • fosters a strong safety culture on the project,
  • creates a sense that everyone is responsible for safe work,
  • can build collaboration between various trades and contractors, and
  • can even improve efficiency and productivity.

Those benefits and others explain why a growing number of owners and safety professionals throughout the U.S. are establishing project safety committees, often with the enthusiastic support of insurers.

What is a project safety committee?

While the most obvious definition of a project safety committee would be a committee charged with overseeing safety on a particular project, successful committees tend to be more well-thought-out and carefully defined.

Typically, a project safety committee is comprised of representatives of each of the trades and/or contractor companies working on the site. That doesn’t mean that every trade has to be represented on the committee; a particular trade or contractor that will be on a three-year project for just a week may not need to participate. However, the overall spirit should be to ensure that committee membership is broad and inclusive.

The project safety committee’s primary purpose is to increase their fellow workers’ interest in and awareness of safer work practices. In essence, they’ll work together to motivate everyone on the site to work safely.

Some owners and contractors may wonder why a safety committee is needed when safety professionals are already working to supervise the site. The committee doesn’t replace the role of a site’s safety professionals. Instead, it serves as an extension and enhancement of that role, providing additional eyes, ears, and brains to identify and prevent hazards on a project, and additional channels and methods for sharing safety-focused messages. Every worker is ultimately responsible for his or her own safety, as well as the well-being of those around them.

Who should serve on a committee?

Members of the project safety committee should be selected by the contractors or trades, and must be given adequate time and authority to perform their committee work. They can be chosen by supervisors or elected from among the workers, depending upon which approach works best for a particular organization.

In most cases, the committee will meet weekly or monthly. Unlike job status or “partnership” meetings, these are not intended to become gripe sessions at which one trade or contractor blames another for problems or falling behind schedules. Instead, the meetings should focus on creating ways to promote safety on the jobsite.

At one site, the project safety committee holds a formal meeting every month. Between those meetings, the committee performs a biweekly safety walk-through, in which all committee members walk through the jobsite. The committee assigns different areas of focus to each member for each walk-through, ideally from an area with which the member may not be familiar. One week, the sprinkler fitter might focus on electrical, while the electricians’ representative concentrates on personal protective equipment. On the next walk-through, the sprinkler fitter might focus on signage, while the electrician eyeballs fall protection.

Developing new perspectives

By switching those roles, we ensure that every aspect of safety is viewed with fresh eyes on every walk-though, and that nobody becomes so accustomed to seeing something that it starts to blend into the background. Because the members “don’t know better,” they’ll ask important questions that might slip by people who are more familiar with those areas of operations. Simple questions such as “Why do you do this activity this way?” can uncover previously unrecognized hazards and trigger innovative alternatives.

Even more important, examining things that are outside the members’ normal scope of work or what they would typically encounter on a jobsite changes the way they look at safety in general. They begin to take a broader, more holistic view, considering how one aspect of the job impacts another, rather than viewing it as one discrete element in a series of tasks. In addition, they bring their new observation skills back to their everyday roles, where they can educate their fellow workers about issues and situations they might not have otherwise considered.

Another useful technique we have employed at our site is assigning committee members to interview individuals from other trades, aided by a two-page form. On the first page, we ask for biographical information such as how long the tradesperson has worked for this company, about family, hometown, and hobbies, and why that worker believes safety is important. Then, on the second page, we have a list of what we call confidential questions. We ask about their safety training, and about issues such as whether they think that getting the job done quickly receives more emphasis than doing it safely.

Using the information

We share the first-page information in our quarterly safety newsletter, giving the other workers a chance to get to know the people who have been interviewed, and pointing out why they think safety is important. Typically, they’ll answer something like, “Safety matters to me because I have two kids at home, and I want to watch them grow up” or “I want to be healthy enough to fish every day when I retire.” Those messages reinforce the value of safety to every worker who sees them, and silently encourage the readers to think about their own reasons for working safely.

The committee reviews the second page of the form to gain insight about potential issues on the site. Something a worker says may trigger an idea or identify a need for specific training. Or, if the contractor supervisors insist that safety is the top priority, but every worker we interview says that safety regularly gets sacrificed for timing, we know that we have to sit down with project managers and get to the bottom of the problem.

Other safety events

The project safety committee at my jobsite has also developed a variety of other ways to promote safety to their fellow workers. A particularly effective event is a series of safety days held throughout the year. For example, at the Summer Safety Day, the committee arranged to have a caterer serve lunch to everyone, and asked representatives of tool companies to be guest speakers during the lunch. The tool salespeople provided demonstrations of their newest cordless tools (with an emphasis on safety benefits over older corded models). We also handed out duffle bags that were sized to hold PPE such as hardhats and safety glasses, and that carried a “safety is in the bag” message on the side.

The committee launched a monthly lunch-and-learn toolbox talk at which they’ll play a video covering some aspect of safety. More recently, they have been developing plans for injury prevention campaigns to call attention to the causes of common injuries such as back problems.

One of the primary advantages of the committee approach is that the workers are better able to create events that appeal to their co-workers, as opposed to someone in management dictating a lesson of the month. The committee members ensure that their co-workers will receive relevant, useful information (and they know they’ll hear about it if something is seen as a waste of time). The members also represent a wide range of educational and cultural backgrounds, so if they are able to reach agreement on a particular idea or approach, we can be confident that it will have broad appeal and connect with nearly everyone on the site.

Encouraging discussion

One of the most valuable segments of our committee’s monthly meetings is the free discussion period that takes place over lunch. Once we finish the “business” portion of the meeting and address all the items on the agenda, we bring in the food and open the discussion. The members know that they can mention any topic without fear of being judged or criticized. The best topics become the focus of future training or discussions.

Of course, there are times when the group may not be as forthcoming as I’d like, or when everyone is just a little reluctant. At those times, the safety professional can take a more active role as facilitator, calling on individual members and ensuring that everyone contributes at least one point to the discussion. That way, participants will be less likely to view the meetings as a waste of their time. (Fortunately, most construction workers are not reticent, so the conversations usually flow without much pushing.) Before the meeting ends, we agree upon what each member is expected to accomplish for the next committee meeting.

The critical element of success
One of the most important — and frequently neglected — elements of project safety committees is an adequate operating budget. Having a budget is important because it gives the committee access to resources they can use to spread the message of safety to their fellow workers. For example, part of the committee budget on my current jobsite funds the quarterly safety newsletter. The budget also covers the cost of lunch at our monthly meetings, making it easier for committee members to find the time for those meetings, as well as giveaways such as the duffel bags.

Although it might seem that forming a project safety committee takes the responsibility for safety away from individual employees and shifts it to a small group, that’s not the case. Safety professionals who have successfully implemented such committees will point out that awareness of safe work practices grows. The committee members become evangelists of a sort, bringing the safety message to their coworkers in a way that is far more compelling than any message from a supervisor could ever be. Instead of playing games based on blame, they look for answers in collaborative, cooperative approaches — and what workplace couldn’t benefit from more of that?

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