Why Safety Committees Fail

By Megan Headley

Many organizations employ safety committees as a means of identifying and eliminating potential workplace hazards and ensuring employees are aware of safety practices and requirements. While these committees can be valuable tools for lowering injury rates and even boosting company productivity, many safety managers have a difficult time implementing committee discussions.

Michelle Gatchell, who handles public information for the safety division of the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation, explains that the value of a safety committee comes from its goals. These should include: “helping promote and heighten awareness of workplace safety; assisting in hazard identification and recommendations for abatement using employee surveys, facility audits, suggestion systems, accident analysis; and assisting with identifying facility, equipment, policy and training needs.”

Richard Grandzol, CSP, CET, occupational safety and health consultant with Safetysmith Inc., offers the mission statement adopted by a safety committee with which he has worked in the past as an ideal by which to work as it offers a concrete action plan. That safety committee’s purpose is to promote safe and healthful practices in all departments by “identifying and correcting workplace hazards, implementing safety and health initiatives, being a clearinghouse for employee safety and health concerns, recommending changes for improvements to existing safety programs and assisting management in achieving continuous improvement in a safety program,” Grandzol says.

Noble goals indeed, but among the big challenges safety committees run into in meeting these goals is that it sits on paper in the committee stage without ever being acted upon.

Stick to a Plan

The pros agree that to be effective, safety committees need to start with a plan and stick to it.

Jim Noone, ARM, CHS-III, CHSP, risk and safety manager for New Mexico Mutual, points out that many committees only exist to satisfy a necessary safety requirement from their insurer, reinsurer, a regulatory authority or some other external source. Developing a mission statement can help a committee evolve past this requirement and understand how a focus on safety can help the company.

“Develop a team charter that specifies the team’s mission, goals and team member responsibilities,” Gatchell advises. She adds, “Set clear expectations for participation from all members.”

“You need to have the committee agree on a mission, and you need to have them agree on ground rules and stick to them,” Grandzol agrees. “You really need to have an agenda and you need to have a list of actions that you review at the end of the meeting. People forget or may not realize that they were assigned to do something and if the committee members don’t do what they agree to do then you’re not going to get very far.”

Gatchell adds that it’s important to set reasonable target dates for completion of tasks as well. A lack of deadlines can prevent anything from getting done as can allowing inadequate time for committee members to complete needed research and follow-up actions for implementing improvements.

Grandzol adds, “You may need a timekeeper or gatekeeper, because it’s very common for people to wander off topic and if they do that you’re wasting time and you become less effective.”

Choose Your Chair Wisely

Grandzol emphasizes that safety committees are a place for employees to express concerns, not for safety managers to lecture on potential risks. As a result, he suggests that the safety manager take a step back and leave the committee leadership up to others. “I believe that the safety manager should not be the chair [of the committee]; I see the safety manager as a resource for the committee, although a member of the committee: someone who can provide technical advice and answer questions and maybe suggest or guide solutions, but not the person that manages or directs the committee,” he says.

Although Grandzol advises that the individual ultimately selected to chair the committee should be versed in good management principles, management shouldn’t assume the lead, since that may interfere with employees’ willingness to bring up potential safety hazards. “Management has to be careful that it doesn’t come in and intimidate and automatically assume that only a manager can run the meeting. You really need to keep that sense of openness and willingness to say things, whether management wants to hear it or not. A lot of companies just assume there has to be a manager running [the committee] and that’s not necessarily the case,” he says.

So who does that leave?

“You do have to have a balance of ordinary employees and management but you have to make sure that management has to be willing to allow the ordinary employee that, if they have the skills, to run the meeting, to chair it,” Grandzol suggests. As he explains, “The more openness you have in the committee the more effective it is.”

Employee Engagement

Of course, selecting a chair may be a moot point if employees aren’t engaged to begin with. Noone says that lack of buy-in from employees is a significant challenge faced by many safety committees, “often the result of an operational level supervisor who is not up for change, no matter how many key employees they lose to preventable accidents.”

Gatchell suggests a few simple steps to encourage employee involvement:

  • Give employees adequate time to serve effectively;
  • Recognize committee achievements;
  • Recognize and reward individual participation; and
  • Emphasize the importance of the committee to the organization and people.

In addition, she advises finding ways to celebrate the committee’s successes and making meetings fun in order to encourage active participation.

Noone adds that transparency is another way to make safety committees valuable to fellow employees. That can include posting committee minutes each month or quarter, investing in safety equipment, notifying everyone of scheduled safety visits by the company’s insured or a contract safety vendor, and enforcing safety. “[These] are the keys to developing a creditable safety plan and, in turn, a safety culture,” Noone says.

Management Support

While it is important to have the individuals whose safety is most on the line involved, safety committees will have a difficult time being effective without support from the top. Gatchell cites “lack of management support and resources (time, money, personnel) for effective follow-through on suggestions” as one of the big areas where safety committees lose steam.

“In certain workplaces there might be a barrier between employees and management,” Grandzol explains. “Employees may be afraid to bring something up about a safety hazard, especially in times where unemployment is high. The safety committee is a place to honestly bring concerns, even anonymously, to management.” However, management must be open to hearing those concerns for the committee to meet its goals.

“It can be difficult getting management to buy in,” Grandzol acknowledges, “especially in industries like manufacturing where they’re running on a razor’s edge profit margin—and you do have to give the safety committee some time. If they meet once a month, you’re going talking about x number of employees times [for example] one hour of lost productivity. But you have to recognize that in the long run those hours will be paid back by reduced injuries and productivity because safety improvements very frequently result in productivity improvements.”

Gatchell explains that getting management support for the committee is a big step in ensuring that a safety committee isn’t all talk and no action. One way to get this support is to strike a balance among members by including people from management as well as labor and operational areas.

Noone agrees that the most effective safety committees include management, without letting these members run the show. “Good [committees] bring together all the key disciplines that form the organization, to include the organization's decision-makers on a neutral, fact-finding based format,” he says. He adds that at least one of those members should be an individual from finance and/or human resources to monitor the progress of the committee.

In addition, management must take the committee’s recommendations seriously, Grandzol emphasizes, or else the committee loses its effectiveness. “The committee will make recommendations to the president or CEO or department head and then the recipient of that report or recommendations needs to be willing to implement it,” he says.

Noone suggests taking it even further. “The senior management team needs to issue and annually (at a minimum) reiterate their top-down support for the development of an enforceable safety plan. There must be consequences for employees’ and their supervisors’ disregard for established procedures,” he says.

Follow-Through and Reporting

Gatchell suggests that another major problem many safety committees face is “inadequate development and documentation of follow-up actions to be taken and return-on-investment strategies.” She suggests that part of the safety manager’s job should be “selling safety improvements to facility management and decision makers” by providing assistance with return on investment development.

Safety managers should be responsible for “statistical analysis and breakdown of injury frequency and cost, trend analysis and comparison to injury averages,” Gatchell says. This can grow out of the safety committee and in turn cement the importance of this body.

Noone notes that safety managers have at their fingertips access to a number of loss-specific sources from inside the organization or available from their insurers, including loss runs, loss trend analysis and historical trending reports. He explains that this information can help provide the basis for avoidance strategies for future safety initiatives.

“The safety committee should blend the supporting statistical supports from their manager with real-time (highly credible) safety addresses from their operational staff, for both loss initiatives addressing historical trends and avoidance methods based on their loss history, the potential for losses for their respective industry … and, most importantly, for their business-specific ‘near misses,’” Noone says.

Gatchell adds that the safety manager can serve as a liaison from the safety committee to the company at large by communicating findings, goals and progress to people at all levels. She adds that the safety officer should be expected to step up to provide training and education on hazard identification and abatement techniques and assist with the understanding and interpretation of federal and state safety requirements and company safety policies and procedures, when requested or agreed upon by the committee.

In the End

Noone offers one additional suggestion for making safety committees more effective: don’t discard the complaints about what has been ineffective.

“Complaints from operations can be a very viable source for correctable issues—especially the elusive ‘near misses,’” Noone says.

About the Author

Megan Headley is a freelance writer based in Fredericksburg, Va. She can be reached at rmheadley3@gmail.com.