Don’t let your committee become “old and in the way.”

In its simplest form, a safety committee is a communications tool — a way to get everyone talking about what, and how, to stop losses and create a company culture that truly values the health and well-being of the individual. There is nothing complicated about this — just put a structure together that mirrors how the organization deals with other critical issues such as production, customer service, quality and employee development.

A December 2007 Dawson Associates/Rochester Business Alliance (DA/RBA) survey of 126 organizations found 81 percent have a safety committee of some type. All the OSHA VPP sites in our survey have one and 87 percent of the organizations that see their safety effort as superior to others in their industry use them. Usage drops to 69 percent among organizations doing poorly against their peer group.

In the U.S., no national requirement exists for a safety committee. Committees are required in some states, including California, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington.

Popular… but effective?
In the DA/RBA survey, we asked our North America-wide, all business sector respondents to tell us if their safety committee was “very effective.” The highest positive response was from OSHA VPP sites at 82 percent. Across all respondents, 41 percent of the organizations that were better at safety than their peer group responded positively; but none of the poorer group indicated effective operations. As for data to support safety committee activity, 36 percent of the better group had good data, only seven percent of the poorer group.

To the question “our management understands that effective safety increases profits and/or organizational effectiveness”, 47 percent of those who responded affirmatively also reported a “very effective” safety committee. Only five percent of those who responded negatively have an effective safety committee.

We examined the link between “safety is part of strategic planning” and a “very effective” safety committee. Forty-four percent of those who agreed with the first agreed with the second. Only ten percent who said “no” on strategic planning” said “yes” to an effective committee.

We found something else very interesting. Of respondents from jurisdictions requiring safety committees, just nine percent found them very effective — and none of them reported having good data to support operations. It might be that most regulated committees must be very tightly structured with very specific membership and function requirements. Basically, no legal wiggle room exists to mesh the committee operation to the organizational culture.

Our conclusion? More than eighty percent of surveyed companies have safety committees, but just a quarter find them effective or have good data with which to operate.

What’s the problem?
Most likely, it’s management. Far too many managers are still clueless about the fact that they and the culture they lead set the tone for everything that happens in the organization.

I was asked to observe a safety committee meeting at a mid-sized company and make some recommendations. After 90 minutes of frustration on the part of all 25 participants — which included considerable time spent on random speculation about the causes of the previous months injuries — the chairperson closed the meeting with the admonition for everyone to “get it together” for the next meeting. Is this how production meetings are run? Afterward, I followed the manufacturing VP, my host, to his office. “See,” he said, “there’s no focus, no process. We’re wasting time and money.”

“Why don’t you give them the focus and guidance?” I asked.

“I don’t want to have too strong an influence on them,” he answered.

In fact, he had no influence. A company officer, present at every meeting, was providing no leadership. No wonder the committee was floundering.

Keys to success
Keep in mind that what your safety committee does depends on your organization’s vision of safety, the culture, the organizational structure, the labor situation, and your style of operation. So, if you choose to have a safety committee, here are my ten points to success:
  1. Do not make your committee responsible for safety, management has that responsibility.
  2. Senior management involvement is needed to help transform words of commitment into action.
  3. Task your committee to help management develop strategy and advise on the safety and health process and how it’s working.
  4. Use data (incidents, rates, research, behavior analysis, etc.) to support decisions. Track the progress of goals and objectives and help management with the accountability part of the equation.
  5. Avoid using your committee as an operating tool. Don’t have members “do” safety. Incident investigations, inspections, suggestion evaluation and hazard report analysis are better done with fast turnaround by the line.
  6. Give your committee member time, funding, clerical support, and other resources.
  7. Don’t let committee members become the enforcers. Enforcement must fall to management. One possible exception: a behavioral safety process can permit line people (along with management) to reward and coach behavior related to safety.
  8. Ensure your committee is not simply place to let people gather so it can be said a committee exists. Look at how committees are used for quality or operations. Use them as a model.
  9. Consider the National Labor Relations Board rulings on safety committees. Ask your human resources staff to help, or have a labor relations attorney review the mission and organization of the committee.
  10. Measures your committee’s performance. Know when it’s working. If it doesn’t, make adjustments.