Developing an Effective Safety Committee

A practical (and whimsical) guide to selecting and operating a safety committee.

Why does the mention of, or the direction to serve on, another safety committee drive a safety director absolutely nuts? Could it be that all the buzzwords -- quality circles, task teams, interdepartmental functional area teams -- have left all sane people sitting at their desks quivering like grandma's Sunday dinner pudding?

As you can imagine, the selection process of determining committee membership is a key element of success. Just so we know what not to do, let's discuss how members of safety committees were selected in the past (like yesterday). Typically, a call is placed to a department head and there is a request to produce a warm body to represent his area on the committee. As soon as the call is completed, the manager will ponder who the lucky one will be: "What about Bob? I'll give the safety director Bob. Bob always complains about safety. He disrupts the crew and never offers a solution. Yeah, Bob is the one. I hope that committee meeting lasts until noon. The crew will get a lot accomplished that day." In the back of his mind, he already thought the only time he sees the safety guy anyway is when he has an audit list. He never just stops by, so yeah, it's Bob!

So, what makes working on a committee a pleasant and productive experience? Why are some committees so stressful, and how can we avoid such problems? Here are some key elements we have learned over the years:

  1. Have a specific objective briefly and clearly defined. When a safety committee has a clearly defined and specific objective, the committee will save time by being more focused and will avoid straying into personal areas of interest not directly related to the stated objective.
  2. Explain the importance of the objective.
  3. Identify the critical knowledge needed and the potential members that have that knowledge. Avoid loading your committee with too many so-called "idea people." Emphasize the importance of people known for resource management and implementation skills.
  4. Approach potential members explaining specifically what you hope they can contribute and determine if they are interested in serving on the committee.
  5. Keep committee size small (4-6 additional members). There seems to be this insane idea that because it is a safety committee, each department needs to be represented. Solicit other departments for information by using side meetings or a personalized request from the committee stressing the value of their input.
  6. Not everyone that contributes needs to be a full-time member. Consider appointing technical members, such as engineering or accounting, that need only be in attendance when requested.
  7. Recognize all contributions -- and not just when service on the committee is over.
  8. Be up front and let interested members know that work assignments will be a normal event.
  9. Send members to a higher level of safety training than might be required to do their job. Remember, knowledge is power. Attempt to send members to seminars on team-building skills or safety seminars related to the committee objective. If you invest in your members, they will invest in the team. Have the foresight to prepare a committee budget and spend time justifying the expense. It is not acceptable to use "blame the budget" tactics.
  10. If more than two of your committee members are not involved in a committee assignment outside of meeting-time parameters for more than six months, your committee is too large or needs replacements.

The first time a potential committee member meets the safety director should not be the day you ask him, or her, to serve on the committee. So, get out of your office a little more and not just to do an audit. Sometimes, a manager or fellow employee would like to see you without you giving them a list of "stuff" to do. An occasional "hi" and before you know it, they won't cringe every time you darken their door.

My personal vote for the most important person on a committee is not the safety director, who has probably been forced into being the chairperson, but the person taking the notes or minutes. I hope you didn't get this job, too! As chairperson, protect this person with all the superhuman abilities you have and if you don't have any, borrow some.

At the first meeting, state rather boldly that the note-taker is king and any complaints related to this particular position may result in the inheritance of this job. Bribes from the chairperson to the note-taker should be, while not expensive, frequent and, for some magical reason unknown to mankind, will always be repaid in excellent work.

If the above listed items work in accomplishing the goals and objectives of a committee, then maybe we won't have to hire a consultant to develop a plastic-wrapped buzzword or a safety culture for us. Most important, let people know we care and value their efforts and contributions. Oh, by the way, don't try to fake it. People are like bank tellers -- they can spot a phony a mile away.

Harry W. Mervis has more than 30 years of experience in the safety/industrial hygiene field. He started his career at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine and worked for 25 years in the chemical manufacturing industry. He is a past occupational safety and health education coordinator with the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union. Currently, he is safety director for Northern Illinois Water Corp., which has been recently acquired by American Water Works Co. Inc. He is a professional member of the American Society of Safety Engineers and a charter member of the Industrial Hygiene Division.

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