Safety committees exist in many workplaces, and the quality of their contributions can vary greatly. In some companies, they fulfill a role of communication, quasi-participation, or perhaps real employee participation — for the few workers on the committee. But let’s be clear: A safety committee is no substitute for authentic and widespread employee involvement in your safety efforts.

True participation in safety occurs when workers engage in activities — particularly decisions — that satisfy basic human needs.

70-year-old idea

Behavior-based safety processes and OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program have created a stir about the virtues of participatory safety, but in fact there’s nothing new about the concept. Seventy years ago, in 1937, an article in the Nation’s Business described a process calling for supervisors and managers to consult with employees on issues affecting employees’ welfare before setting policies or initiating interventions.

No definitive proof exists that employee participation in safety will produce a lower injury and illness rate, though VPP work sites and numerous behavior-based safety users can point to impressive reductions. But relying on a safety committee as your sole means of interacting with employees keeps the lid on participation, so to speak, and reduces your odds of substantial performance improvement.

Paving the way

Fostering employee involvement beyond the confines of your safety committee takes a good deal of preparation. And I’m talking about readiness at all levels of your organization. Managers at all levels must sincerely believe employees have something positive to contribute when it comes to safety. Otherwise, we’re simply talking about managers lending a lot of lip service to the idea of “utilizing employee assets” and rhetoric like that.

Also, supervisors must be trained in new and different safety roles, especially if more safety decisions are going to be made by the employees themselves. This applies to safety and health managers, too. Safety professionals accustomed to making all the decisions must be ready to let go and act as facilitators, advisors and consultants in some cases.

If these preparations — mental adjustments — aren’t in order, your employees’ attempts to provide safety input will not meet with acceptance or interest. In fact, your safety processes could be worse off, as disillusioned employees retreat into apathy.

Prepping your workforce

Of course, your employees must be prepared to participate in safety in meaningful ways. Just as it’s easy to have safety committee members dozing in the back of the room and not contributing, broader attempts to bring workers into the safety loop can have mixed results without adequate preparation. Employees need training in new techniques, new work patterns, and the like. They also require guidelines in how to participate. We’re not talking about simply showing up for a committee meeting, or classroom compliance training. If safety problem-solving or goal-setting are to be made important parts of workers’ jobs, then workers need to be trained in problem-solving methods or realistic, consensus methods of setting safety objectives.

Don’t skip a step

All this prep work takes time. Don’t expect immediate positive results. Rather, you should look forward to some grumbling and resistance — it is inevitable. It takes time for workers and supers and managers to become accustomed to new, expanded ways of managing safety processes that extend beyond safety department directives and centralized decision-making from a single safety committee.

It can be relatively quick and simple to set up a safety committee and call it your employee involvement program. True involvement, involving planning; goal-setting; problem-solving; communications; and assigning roles, responsibilities and accountability, should involve:
  • Obtaining management support;
  • Obtaining union buy-in, if applicable;
  • Appointing a coordinating task force;
  • Assessing your culture using a perception survey.
Here is an important consideration: If your culture assessment reveals widespread problems with morale, trust, or other employee-relations issues, stop right there. Address these systemic cultural problems before proceeding with a safety involvement process.

If your culture is ready to take on greater employee involvement, select a pilot department or plant. Orient and train pilot personnel, and then roll out your process. If the implement runs into obstacles or for whatever reasons cannot gain traction, stop right there and dig into what’s gone wrong.

If your pilot proceeds according to plan, and you should have ways of measuring this, evaluate the keys to success — observe, question, listen to those involved — and then move on to expand your process. Your goal is to ultimately embed authentic employee involvement in safety as a normal part of your organization’s systems and culture.