Thought Leadership

How to reinvent an ineffective safety committee

November 7, 2012
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Everyone knows that any organization that cares one whit about safety has to have a safety committee. But do they? Most safety committees that I have seen are little more than opportunities for people to eat doughnuts and bitch about how little the rest of the organization cares about safety.  These gripe sessions afford the safety professional to play the role of the of the long-suffering martyr while frustrated team members complain that Operations leadership won’t invest in safety, maintenance won’t address the things that need to be fixed. Nothing much is produced by the committee beyond carbon dioxide and occasionally methane.

But it need not be this way.  An effective safety committee can manage hazard correction, inform safety strategy, and help to foster a culture that truly and deeply value worker safety.

While there are many reasons why a safety committee can fail—probably as many reasons as committees themselves—there are a critical few reasons that are nearly universal to the ineffective safety committees:

Poor Meeting Skills. The poorest performing safety committees all seem to share the same crappy meeting skills. There are no agendas (or if there are agendas they are so poor that they are essentially just pieces of paper with no value), little courtesy (people talking over each other, wandering wildly off-topic, or just generally behaving rudely), and meeting notes, if issued at all, are largely ignored.  The lack of meeting skills isn’t limited to safety committees of course, but the need is more acute when the purpose of a meeting is to make the workplace safer.

The Committee Lacks A Clear Definable Purpose.  Safety committees should start with a charter. A charter is a document that identifies the purpose for the committee and the parameters under which it will operate.  The committee should periodically review the charter, and if it has wandered off path the chairperson should adjust the activities such that the committee returns to task.  Each member should have a clear understanding of the goal of the committee, and for that to happen the goal must be expressed in tangible observable terms. Goals like “make the workplace safe” or “protect workers” aren’t useful.  The charter must describe the goal in operational terms, as tasks that lead to a greater end.

The Role of the Committee is Murky.In the worst performing safety committees it’s difficult to tell exactly what their roles are. Are they tactical? Are they strategic? Are they supposed to inform policy? Should they be monitoring and directing corrective action? In most cases, the safety professional associated with a poor performing safety meeting can’t answer these questions with certainty or honesty.

Personally, I have found greatest success in dividing the safety committee into two teams, a tactical team that is focused on hazard management and incident investigation, and a strategic team that focuses on policy updates, emergent trends, and an overarching strategy for dealing with foundational issues that jeopardize worker safety.

The Committee Has an Inappropriate Make Up.  The biggest issue facing ineffective safety committee is that membership is voluntary.  Voluntary membership creates a committee comprised with the greatest desire and or devotion, but not necessarily the greatest skills, power to make decisions, or power to persuade. That’s great if you are organizing a rummage sale or a church picnic, but it’s inappropriate for a group where the output is meaningful and truly important (if you think that organizing a rummage sale or church picnic is important—on the level that worker safety is—you are delusional and dopey).

An Operations leader who has the power to make the decisions with which the committee is tasked leads the most effective committees.  Furthermore, the committee itself should be comprised of empowered representatives from materials, maintenance, and each operating departments.

The Committee Lacks Effective Tools. Too many safety efforts miss a key element of hazard management: a database that electronically tracks the progress of hazards from identification to correction.  I used to sell an off-the-shelf software that tracked hazards, emailed the responsible parties, and tracked many of the key metrics.  What I learned from selling this database was that for most companies it is far more effective and valuable to develop their own software than it is to force fit an off-the-shelf solution to its needs.

A good safety committee can be an indispensible part of a high functioning and robust safety management process, but it doesn’t just happen.  An organization needs to carefully design its safety committee such that it aligns with, and supports, the overall safety strategy.

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