How to Get Employees Involved in the Safety Program

Safety committees are a hallmark of effective safety programs, but many find employee participation a nagging problem. These practical steps can help build participation and support by employees and supervisors alike.

The experience of participants in OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) over the past 20 years has demonstrated that management of worker safety and health protection is a decisive factor in reducing the extent and the severity of work-related injuries and illnesses. The VPP participants' experiences and my own research indicate that safety and health programs that incorporate a high level of employee participation are likely to be more successful.

OSHA's Voluntary Safety and Health Program Management Guidelines1 consist of program elements that represent a distillation of applied safety and health management practices that are used by employers who are successful in protecting the safety and health of their employees. The OSHA guidelines listed below target employee participation and include the following recommendations for employers:

  • Regularly communicate with employees about workplace safety and health matters;
  • Provide employees with access to information relevant to the program;
  • Provide ways for employees to become involved in hazard identification and assessment, prioritizing hazards, training and program evaluation;
  • Establish a way for employees to report job-related fatalities, injuries, illnesses, incidents and hazards promptly and to make recommendations about appropriate ways to control those hazards; and
  • Provide prompt responses to such reports and recommendations.

Although these guidelines offer practical recommendations, companies were often confused about how best to implement them. One of the most widely recognized means for encouraging employee participation is the safety and health committee. However, attempts to implement the guidelines via safety and health committees often yielded mixed results in achieving employee participation. A common barrier that precludes many committees from realizing their potential is the failure to achieve active and meaningful employee participation. The challenge for most companies is determining how to make their safety and health committees work.

A few years ago, I conducted a survey of New Hampshire employers to gather information for a workshop about forming safety committees that I was asked to conduct for the Safety and Health Council of New Hampshire. The survey's data provided so much information that I eventually published a manuscript about my observations and conclusions (Building A Better Safety and Health Committee, American Society of Safety Engineers, 1998).

One of the most fascinating observations was the response to the question about employer satisfaction with their current safety and health committee. Only 62 percent of the respondents declared satisfaction with their safety and health committee2. Based upon this response, I began to study what factors separated those employers that were satisfied with their safety and health committee from those that were not. My research identified five management tools budget, orientation, schedule, agenda and minutes that were common to those committees with the highest level of employer satisfaction. Committees that utilized all five management elements reported uniform satisfaction with the functioning of their committee. Employer satisfaction declined as the committees utilized fewer of these five management tools. Let's examine each of these management tools.

Budget

Almost every business function has a budget, a plan to allocate the company resources to complete the task at hand. Yet this was a foreign concept to most safety and health committees I surveyed. When a company decides to implement a safety and health committee, the first detail that should be determined is what kind and how much of the company's resources are going to be dedicated to it. Determine what activities are within the scope of the committee, how much time is allocated to the performance of these activities and what expenses are anticipated. Budget time, resources and money for training, conducting planned safety and health activities, and committee expenses such as meeting costs and supplies.

A budget that establishes the parameters that a safety and health committee should operate within can also alleviate potential employee barriers to participation. Communicate these expectations to the committee members and management, especially first-line supervisors. Establishment of realistic time requirements for committee activities will help to find people willing to actively participate and supervisors that can plan for their subordinates' participation.

Orientation

Most safety and health committees I have encountered rotate members periodically. Some rotate as frequently as every 6 weeks, while others may go several years without changing members. Regardless of the frequency, each time someone new comes into the group, a learning curve begins. How many times have you joined an organization and had to learn on your own how that group functioned? What were the mission, goals and objectives of the group. How did things get done? What were the various members' roles within the group?

The best organized safety and health committees include a well-designed orientation to teach new members how to start contributing to the effectiveness of the group in a much shorter time frame by explaining these issues. An orientation tailored to your specific safety and health committee will also establish expectations of the company management as well as other committee members.

Schedule

Scheduling conflicts become more common as we try to meet the many obligations to job and family. How much more difficult is it to attend a function that meets at irregular times? Obviously, you can never eliminate schedule conflicts totally, but by establishing when and where the safety and health committee will meet, participants and non-participants can plan in advance and minimize conflicts.

The most common adaptation observed was the same date and time for meetings, usually monthly or even weekly. A few cautions about planning these same time/place meetings. Both weekly and monthly meetings should aim for a time that has few potential conflicts. Mondays and Fridays are often part of long weekends and should be avoided if committee members enjoy taking time off in that manner. Don't forget that many holidays also fall on Mondays to allow a three-day weekend for employees. These days off can be minor inconveniences or they can cause significant disruptions to safety and health committees that do not plan for them. The scheduler should also look for other conflicts that can be avoided so that meeting attendance can be encouraged.

Agenda

Most safety and health committees prepare a written agenda. The problem with agendas, however, involves following them. There are numerous reasons safety and health committees do not follow the planned agenda. First, the agenda should always be in writing as verbal agendas tend to encourage drifting from the plan. The agenda should identify topics, who has responsibility for each topic, what type of topic it is (e.g., discussion vs. announcement) and how much time is allocated to that topic. Each agenda should have a start time and an end time, and both should be respected. Because priorities change, the agenda should be reviewed and approved by the committee at the start of the meeting. If a new higher priority item arises, it can replace another agenda item.

The committee leader has the responsibility to make sure the agenda is followed. This may mean tabling a topic for a future meeting, dropping some other agenda item to continue with the current topic or bringing the current item to closure as planned. It also means keeping the discussion focused on the current topic. Focus may mean minimizing banter among committee members, setting ground rules for discussions or curtailing unrelated debates. The committee leadership has an obligation to guide the committee toward completion of the agenda topic in the time allotted.

Minutes

The most frequently used management tool is the meeting minutes. Minutes should reflect what actions and decisions the group made. They do not record verbatim every word spoken during the meeting but do serve as the record of the meeting. A secretary or scribe should be tasked with keeping the minutes. A draft should be distributed to committee members as soon as practical after the meeting but certainly prior to the next meeting. Minutes should be reviewed and approved by the entire committee at the next meeting. The biggest mistake in most meeting minutes is the failure to bring items to closure. Once an item appears on the agenda, the meeting minutes should describe what the outcome of that item was. Failure to close the loop leaves doubts about what actions, if any, were taken by the committee.

Case Study

Let's examine how one organization implemented a strategy to overcome obstacles to the success of their committee. It is one thing to select employees to serve on a committee and quite another thing to have them contribute. The first step in breaking down this barrier is to determine why employees are not participating. Identify the problem(s) affecting employee participation and solve them.

This organization's committee members were not attending meetings because the supervision didn't support employees participating. Reasons for this lack of support included reduced effectiveness of the supervisors' teams in the form of lower utilization rates. To solve this problem, clear roles were established for safety and health committee members and communicated to all employees and management. Committee membership became a part of the employees' regular jobs, not an extracurricular activity.

Next, management communicated clear time expectations to supervision so they could plan for other team members to cover critical work assignments in the event of conflicts. When supervisors knew that a subordinate was budgeted to conduct committee activities for a specific number of hours per week/month/quarter/year, they were able to plan accordingly.

Third, meetings were scheduled with consideration of the supervisors' team needs. While not all conflicts could be avoided, supervisors were more willing to compromise if they felt their views were considered.

Lastly, a labor account was established that permitted committee members to charge the time spent performing committee duties. This time was not calculated in the team utilization rating, and the respective team and supervisor were not penalized for the time a member spent on non-team activities. Management insistence that safety and health committee members had an expanded job coupled with accommodations to their supervisors and establishment of clear time commitment expectations removed most of the barriers to employee participation in this organization and resulted in a nearly 95 percent participation rate by committee members.

Employee involvement allows workers to develop and express commitment to safety and health, improves employee morale and contributes to the bottom line.

Utilizing the suggested management tools will help ensure employees and management employ a successful safety and health committee implementation strategy.

John Spath is the manager of Occupational Health and Safety for the Boston regional office of Clayton Group Services Inc. He has more than 30 years of environmental health and safety (EHS) experience with over 12 years as a consultant. He has managed division-level EHS departments for several Fortune 500 companies and has extensive experience with aerospace, electronics and automotive manufacturers; municipal agencies; medical facilities; metals producers; and the telecommunications, insurance, real estate and railroad industries. Spath serves as a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers' (ASSE) Council of Professional Development. In 2001, he was named the Regional Safety Professional of the Year (SPY) by ASSE and was named the Greater Boston ASSE Chapter's SPY in 2000.

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