Results from a recent safety culture survey (conducted by The Human Side Inc.) at a large facility revealed that approximately 90 percent of the population did not know who was on their safety team, when they met or what they did. The other 10 percent, not surprisingly, were those on the team and management.

Unfortunately, these kinds of results are common, which might lead one to ask, “Why do we have a safety team?”

Working in teams

Building teams into the workforce has been a significant trend over the past few years. Many organizations, due to economic and competitive reasons, have had to reduce their workforce, removing levels of management and supervision and pushing management/supervision functions down to the bottom level. Corporations, in themselves, have become complex with several diverse industries under one umbrella; calling for groups to work in tandem.

A significant amount of research supports the idea that teams are better at solving problems and learn faster than individuals. Although many companies realize the value of teams, some obstacles stand in the way of team success. The two largest are lack of training in group dynamics and a long history of emphasis on individual performance rather than group success. Many work environments center on individual goals and rewards. Performance appraisals, pay systems, advancement, authority levels, rewards are geared towards the individual.

Often individuals themselves are more comfortable working on their own than working in a group. From day one in most peoples’ educational experience, individual achievement has been top priority. Fostering a group effort is just not that easy. An organization cannot simply assign people to a team and expect the group to go forth and be successful.

Forming the team

Before forming the safety team, management needs to communicate to the population that the team is being formed. In addition, the goal of the safety team must be clearly stated, along with responsibilities and tasks required. The work population needs to be aware of the composition of the safety team, that the team will be working towards improving the “safety of all,” and that the team’s activities will be continually communicated to everyone.

When forming a safety team, the basic composition recommended is 60/40; that is 60 percent hourly and 40 percent management/supervision.

(If the facility is a union shop, union representation is essential.) Representatives from all departments and shifts need to be included. Soliciting volunteers can be a good method of getting members on the team. If volunteers are not forthcoming, have each department pick its representative. The key is to have the entire population represented on the safety team. Management needs to make the commitment to participate.

Early stages — organization

Prior to beginning execution of the basic team objective — “managing and improving safety in the work environment” — develop the structure of the team. Certain positions on the team are essential:
  • A team leader (emphasis is on the term “leader”) is essential. This person will make sure meetings happen; gets the meeting started; ensures that the meeting agenda is adhered to; and sees to it that all communications to the plant population occur. This person is not the “ruler.”
  • A backup leader is needed to fill in for the team leader for vacations, illness and scheduling conflicts. (In fact, all positions should have backups.)
  • A recorder effectively communicates the team’s efforts, projects, etc.; captures what is accomplished in the meetings; and prepares formal minutes to be shared with the entire workforce.
  • A flip-chart facilitator is an aid to the recorder. This person writes down decisions, assignments, etc., so everyone in the meeting is on the same page.
  • A coach from management is particularly essential to securing resources that the team needs to complete its objectives.
  • Develop sub-teams to handle various projects and assignments.

Team performance

Steps in team performance are as follows:

Develop the plan.The team’s objective needs to be determined in clear, measurable and achievable terms. In planning, any obstacles need to be identified up front. Resources must be evaluated and established. Incorporate past experiences (failures and successes). Determine methods of carrying out courses of action. Plan for the “what if’s.”

Evaluate, review and communicate the plan.Everyone on the team needs to know the plan and why they are there. Review the plan, determining that the objectives are clear, measurable and achievable. Identify obstacles that need to be addressed and determine methods to overcome them. The team needs to determine how the plan is to be executed — who does what, when and how. Continuously review and evaluate the contingencies covered in the plan. The entire workforce must then be informed of the safety plan and solicited for input.

Perform the plan.The plan needs to be performed as determined and communicated. Do not assign too many tasks to any one individual or sub-group. Follow up to ensure that the assignments are being carried out. Obstacles encountered along the way need to be communicated “sooner than later.”

Re-evaluate performance & revise the plan.This step is often skipped by most teams because of a reluctance to discuss mistakes. The old adage “We learn from our mistakes” is very true. We are all happy to talk about successes. However, being aware of and reviewing both our successes and mistakes is critical to accomplishing the safety goals of the facility.

One way to overcome reluctance to discussing errors is to foster open communication by “removing work-hats.” Fear of reprisal should be eliminated. Once failures and successes are identified, the cause for each must be determined. Then the team can incorporate successes into future activities and eliminate reoccurrences of past mistakes.

Communicate, communicate, communicate.Communication cannot be over-emphasized. This is a huge responsibility of the safety team. Workers want to know what is planned and what is happening now.

Solicit input from workers outside of the team.Soliciting and using input from the entire facility population is particularly important for safety teams. Who knows better than those in the work environment what areas of safety can be improved?

Recognize the team’s efforts. Positive reinforcement and recognition is the biggest driver in excellent performance. By recognizing the efforts of the safety team, you enhance team cohesiveness and success.

Management commitment.Above all, unless management support and commitment is solid, a safety team cannot excel in its efforts.

Sidebar: Guard against “burn-out”

Because a safety team must continue on for the life of the organization, the team should be prepared for “burn-out.” Very few people can sustain enthusiasm and performance on a team for very long durations. Therefore, backups for team membership should be continually solicited. Not only does having backups help maintain a good working size of a team, but it provides for fresh ideas and enthusiasm.