Safety Committees: What and Why (Part Two of Three)

Jesse Brazzell, CHST
Manager Safety Services
Safety Management Group

SafetyCommitteePatchIn the first part of this series (Part One of Three), we talked about the importance of having a safety committee to act as a conduit for delivering safety information to the entire workforce, and to provide a channel for feedback and suggestions from the workers.

The first step in making a safety committee work most effectively is making sure that it has the right members. As we noted, the most productive committees include participants from throughout the company or the specific jobsite, with members representing levels from hourly workers to upper management.

In companies or worksites with fewer than 100 workers, you can generally obtain the best results from committees of no more than seven members. Even when worksites become much larger, it’s good to keep the committee at a manageable size to ensure that all of the participants feel that they are really making contributions.

While it’s possible to select the members of the committee through some kind of democratic process such an election, the most effective committees are usually those for which participants are carefully selected. The goal is not to ensure that the owner or manager’s viewpoint dominates the discussion. Instead, it’s to make sure the people sitting on the committee will be good representatives who will be respected by the workers.

Who should make the selection? That’s different for every company. At some companies, the safety director and the president may make the choices. At others, it may be the operations manager or department heads. A collaborative approach works better for other companies. The best choice is whoever is ultimately responsible for safety within the company. It’s also a good idea to have someone from upper management involved as a visible sign that the company is truly committed to safety and the committee approach.

Every manager can identify good-natured people who bring a healthy attitude to work and treat their co-workers well. Ideally, those people will make up the bulk of your committee. However, for the sake of balance – and to ensure that the workers see the committee as legitimate representatives of their interests – it’s also a good idea to choose some members who have a reputation for being skeptical, or for questioning others’ viewpoints. If the resident cynics support a policy, other workers may be more willing to embrace it. A combination of both personality types tends to work best.

Before you approach specific candidates for the committee, be ready to answer their questions. They’ll want to know where and how often the committee is likely is to meet, and what expectations management has for the group. Most people will be honored to have been asked, as long as they have a good sense of what’s involved. It may be that some candidates may not be comfortable with the role, or that their work may force them to miss meetings. Give them the opportunity to turn you down. After all, a participant who is hesitant or who really doesn’t want to be there isn’t going to do anyone any good.

Give thought to the term of service, too. It’s a good idea to appoint members for a set amount of time, and to rotate positions so that members only need to commit for a year or so at a time. Rotating members is also a way to head off hard feelings about not being selected. If workers know that they may be asked six months or a year down the road, there won’t be as much resentment. You may also want to stagger members’ terms so there are no drastic changes at any one time.

Finally, be sure that any representatives from management do not dominate the meetings. It’s a natural tendency for company leaders to assume leadership roles in committee meetings, but that can be counterproductive. Workers may believe that the committee is a sham, or that management isn’t really interested in their ideas or involvement. Management representatives should take a deep breath, let the other participants account for most of the discussions, and listen carefully to both what’s said and how workers say it. Doing that offers the potential to gain a great deal of valuable insight.

Next month’s installment will examine the pitfalls that sometimes derail safety committees, along with sound strategies for avoiding them.

Part 3 of 3

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