Making a Safety Committee Work for You

Oct. 23, 2006
Recognizing the value of safety committees is a step many companies are taking to inject safety awareness into their company culture. The trick is to know how to make one run effectively.

Obtaining results is important when reinforcing the value of a safety committee to company employees, says Kielly MacKenzie, safety representative program personnel development coordinator at Boise Cascade's St. Helens, Ore., facility. This is why he encourages other workers to follow his safety committee's footsteps by allowing them to see the active steps the committee has made in improving safety.

Airborne sawdust was a problem before Boise Cascade's safety committee was implemented in October 2005. "The company would take a recordable incident of airborne sawdust exposure at least once every 2 years," MacKenzie says.

Once the safety committee started to secure its role as a safety watchdog and train its representatives in hazard identification, one of the committee's safety representatives started to look for the root cause of the airborne sawdust problem. After talking to employees who worked with the woodchips where the sawdust originated, the safety representative discovered the sawdust became airborne as the woodchips were transferred from one belt to another. The problem was corrected immediately.

"We use this example when talking to other employees in the mill and say this just one of the ways our program can be of help," he says.

As at Boise Cascade, many other employers are looking to invest in safety committees as a means to help management provide a safe workplace for employees in addition to improving the company's bottom line. Wayne Vanderhoof, an independent safety consultant, wrote in Occupational Hazards in 2002 that "by having a well-trained, organized and energized safety committee, safety in the workplace can be kept in the forefront of the minds of workers and management and be considered as much a core value as production and quality."

Knowing the value of a safety committee can be beneficial when starting one. But many safety committees falter when it comes to following through on their safety vision. A key reason is that the participants on the safety committee are not provided with a clear understanding of what is expected from them as participants and the committee as a whole when it comes to preventing accidents and injuries in the workplace.

Safety committees are what Dan Miller - an organizational development consultant who has worked with hundreds of safety committees for the past 36 years - calls the "main artery of an organization." Miller, though, says safety committees have developed a bad rap because some employees view them as just another tedious safety assignment.

"Most people see safety committees as a pain in the butt, another thing to do to get OSHA off their backs," Miller explains.

Walking the Talk

Miller emphasizes that to get a good, effective safety committee off the ground, the basic requirements of having a safety committee &endash; deciding on the number of members, tracking meeting minutes, creating a hazardous identification process, etc. - while important, are not as essential as figuring out how a group of people (union or non-union) will work well together.

"In an effective safety committee, people talk to each other, communicate their expectations, goals or whatever else they have in mind," Miller says.

Miller drilled this concept into Boise Cascade's upper management when the company called on him after seeing him give a presentation at a safety conference. For an entire day, Miller worked on deconstructing and reconstructing a new safety vision for Boise Cascade, while solving any past issues that didn't allow the safety committee to flow smoothly.

MacKenzie says that talking to Miller and understanding his stance made him see the importance of interpersonal communication between company management and employees.

"He (Miller) has been instrumental on how to deal with employees who are disgruntled about something," MacKenzie says. "He gave us guidelines on what to look for and how we should interact with employees."

When instructing companies on improving safety committee effectiveness, one of the notions Miller emphasizes is that it is important for safety committee members to practice what they preach.

This is one of the messages MacKenzie takes to heart. The sawdust example, MacKenzie says, is one of many that goes on in the company and shows that the safety representatives are on the ball when it comes to watching out for hazards.

"Safety representatives are and should be seen as teachers, mentors," he says. "We want to show we are the communication link between employees, the safety department and management."

Springs Window Fashions

Another company that aims to make their safety committee members role models for safety is Springs Window Fashions, a Montgomery, Pa.-based vertical and horizontal window blinds manufacturer. The safety committee at the company, which was named one of America's Safest Companies by Occupational Hazards in 2005, has 115 members and eight action safe action teams.

The safety committee is hard at work at building a comprehensive safety culture throughout the company. Each action team has a particular focus, ranging from ergonomics and education and training to health and wellness. As a result, Springs Window Fashions' extensive safety program and committee effectiveness led to the company being honored with OSHA's coveted Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) Star status.

Every action team is important in the makeup of the committee, says Dell Pratt, safety coordinator at Springs Window Fashions and co-chair of the company's safety committee. But Pratt claims that the backbone of it all is the Safety Points action team.

"Our Safety Points is very important in bringing the awareness process to our associates [employees]," Pratt says. "We wanted a way to communicate all our information to our associates, not just in meetings, but on a day-to-day basis. We figured if we had representative from every department on every shift, that would really help out matters."

The Safety Points action group, which, according to Pratt, is the "eyes and ears" of the entire safety committee, encompasses the focuses of all the central safety committee's other action groups. For instance, all 36 members of the Safety Points subcommittee - the largest one of all the action groups - receive ergonomic training so they can familiarize themselves with issues should problems arise. If someone comes up to them with an ergonomic complaint - for example, neck strain - Safety Points members are able to identify the problem and take the information to the appropriate action group for its review.

Planning for Success

According to Miller, the Safety Points concept is effective for Springs Window Fashions because the company placed special emphasis on training the committee's members. But training is not just about educating safety committee members about OSHA regulations or how to give first aid, he says. Safety committee members should be educated in running effective meetings, since workers, who might not have any experience or training in management issues, will comprise a good portion of the committee.

"Many safety committees that fail don't have clear management training where they understand the agenda and the ground objectives," he says. "If management doesn't provide training in that area, all you will have are a bunch of workers getting together, wasting time. Putting on an effective meeting and facilitating a discussion around safety topics is a real skill set."

Having an agenda and having goals set ahead of time are of primary importance to a safety committee, according to Pratt, especially when handling a committee of 115 members. In the beginning of the year, Pratt organizes a kickoff meeting where all the associates are present to set the goals for the year. To ensure the accountability of everyone involved, the goals are published in the company newsletter. In addition, meetings to be held throughout the year are scheduled during that initial meeting. Pratt says this way, "there are no excuses" for things not to get done.

"The people involved need to know what is expected of them," he says. "If they don't have a clue in how they could contribute to accident prevention, then they probably won't be effective safety committee members."

For some companies, having a planned, outlined agenda is essential to the success of a safety committee. For others, the agenda is very important but the follow-through is even more so, especially to Michael Saujani, corporate safety director for Niles, Ill.-based Fort Dearborn Co, a bottle label printing company that was named one of America's Safest in 2005.

"One of the ways a safety committee prevents hazardous situations is by doing an audit," he explains.

Hired by Fort Dearborn to organize safety committees throughout the company's six facilities in 2001, Saujani immediately went to work, determining which areas within the organization needed improvement by looking at any loss-time days, accidents and other safety issues. He, along with other committee members, creates a list of action items to be completed by the committee sub-teams, and afterward, they audit the action items to determine if they have been completed or not. Not only do they audit the action items but committee members also complete a safety audit of the entire facility.

"Preventing accidents through audits is not as cut-and-dried as it sounds, but they definitely help increase the awareness level among the people," Saujani says. "By increasing the awareness level, other employees make sure that the hazards they see are corrected before any problems arise."

Different Strokes for Different Folks

While all safety committees have the same goal - creating an accident- and illness-free work environment - committees come in all shapes and sizes.

For Pratt, the more committee members on board the merrier. He says having a large safety committee makes it easier for members to complete projects in a timelier and more efficient fashion. Also, having more workers involved spreads the word about the importance of safety.

"To get as many people as involved as possible, you have to make it interesting for them," he says. "You have to give them meaningful projects to work on."

Pratt stresses that the projects handed over to the committee members are given a flexible time period for completion and membership in the committee is voluntary.

On the other hand, Saujani likes to keep his safety committee structure as small as possible. Each safety committee in the company's six facilities is comprised of six to seven members, which Saujani says makes it easier for the committee to get things done.

"I prefer this number of people, otherwise the safety committee would get bogged down," he says. "The larger the group, the more difficult it is to manage it."

Saujani says that to have more than seven people involved in a committee could result in members using committee meetings as an opportunity to discuss other matters that don't pertain to safety. "I want to make sure that when we have a meeting, we stick to safety issues," he says.

Having Management Back You Up

Saujani likes to call his safety committee "fully functional" as opposed to "effective" since the committee needs to function in a variety of areas.

"A fully functional safety committee, to me, is one that is going to meet regularly, one in which somebody is recording the minutes of the meeting and I can see what is being done," he says. "But it is imperative that management, especially the general manager, gives his/her support to the committee."

Since the general manager ultimately is held accountable for the safety of all the company's employees, it is crucial for him or her to monitor the progress of the safety committee and provide coaching and training for them as they go along, says Saujani. The general manager also should decide in what direction the safety committee should be heading, he says.

Miller seconds this view, as he says that managers who seemingly are not involved in the safety committee process and function contribute to one of the many facets he sees in failing safety committees. Not only should managers be involved, but they also should deliver a "vibration" of support.

"Employees should see that the managers are dedicated and passionate about the safety committee's mission," he says. "When other safety committee members see the vibration that the lead manager has, they acquire it and then they pass that vibration along to other members of the company."

Whether a safety committee is run by upper management or strictly by employees makes no difference in the end, says Saujani. Each company has a different culture and a different way of thinking, so it is important to identify what works well for the organization.

"The important thing is to see how effective the committee is going to be," he says. "As long there is communication and a good rapport among committee members, in addition to having the solid mission of improving safety, everything else should fall into place."

Sidebar: Tips for Safety Committee Effectiveness

A safety committee only is as effective as the members leading the organization make it. Here are some tips Dell Pratt (Springs Window Fashions), Michael Saujani (Fort Dearborn Co.), Kielly MacKenzie (Boise Cascade) and Dan Miller have offered in creating a committee that is effective in providing a safer workplace.

Set clear expectations and goals: A safety committee should have a clearly defined purpose, usually written in a mission statement. Members also should be aware of their responsibilities in contributing to accident prevention.

Have an agenda: Having an agenda for meetings enables the safety committee head to monitor attendance, what action items are in place, who is the doing the follow-up, etc.

Measure the committee's progress: When the progress of the safety committee is being measured, its performance level will increase because proper attention will be given to ensure goals are being met. As Miller says, "If they don't know how they are measured, they don't know what's going on."

Be proactive: Not being proactive and just checking off the list of basic requirements will not make a safety committee effective in the long run.

Instill passion in committee members: Safety committee leaders should instill what Miller calls a "vibration" onto other committee members and company employees, as it will motivate them to be passionate about company safety.

Encourage communication among safety committee members: Having a dialogue about each member's vision of safety awareness will not only create safety committee effectiveness but also will instill a spirit of a camaraderie among members.

Give members time for their duties and responsibilities: Safety committee leaders should organize meetings during paid working hours and committee members should be given a reasonable time period to complete safety projects.

Assign action items and do a follow-up: Every project or task should be assigned to one person, team, or subcommittee and a follow-up report should be given to determine the status of the action item or if it was completed.

Prohibit non-safety related issues during meetings: Discussing other issues than safety is not only irrelevant, but also takes time away from getting things done during the time allotted. Identify the issue as having little or no impact on safety, stop the discussion, and move on to relevant safety issues.

Give members training in managing meetings, as well as safety: To do their jobs effectively, committee members need to be trained not only in accident investigation, prevention and the regulatory requirements such as OSHA standards, but they also need to know how to run a meeting effectively.

Give members time for their duties and responsibilities: Safety committee leaders should organize meetings during paid working hours and committee members should be given a reasonable time period to complete safety projects.

Recognize the committee's accomplishments: Acknowledging and publicizing the committee's accomplishments on the company newsletter, for example, will further motivate the members and will keep all employees informed on the committee's safety efforts.

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