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Elements of an Effective Safety Committee

There are a number of components necessary to create and maintain a strong, effective safety committee. Key among them are employee involvement and evolution – that constant search for ways to improve both how the committee functions as a group and the results committee members produce. Other ingredients for success include ownership at all levels of the organization, a clearly defined committee charter, sponsorship, effective committee facilitation, and companywide communication about committee activities and progress.

Evolve and Involve
Forming a safety committee is a great way to instill a sense of ownership in employees, and it’s also an excellent opportunity to help strengthen a company’s safety culture. These groups often foster a sense of trust among members; a successful safety committee is typically comprised of individuals who have confidence in each other’s intentions to do the right thing and make sensible decisions for safety improvements.

Once a committee has been formed, its members will ideally strive for excellence by continually seeking to become better at what they do. And although there are numerous ways for a committee to evolve – such as inviting guest speakers to meetings, scheduling agenda topics that stimulate dialogue and rotating the duties of committee members – active participation is the most crucial. Successful safety committees do not rely only on the chair and safety professionals to carry the weight of the work; other company employees must get involved, too.

There are many safety committees that would be great models for benchmarking, where the line owns the process and reaches out to support groups as needed. Provide opportunities to employees, such as leading a subcommittee on a safety issue or resolving another issue that relates to their line of work. Members need to know how safety committees are contributing to overall company success, which includes having discussions about desired work behaviors. Regardless of their position at the company, an employee who has a passion for safety should be strongly encouraged to join the safety committee and take on an ownership role. They may even become a safety leader at some point, which could mean even greater company safety results in the future.

Keep in mind that committee members must feel free to express themselves. Those who join a committee typically want to be involved, but won’t be of much assistance if they feel uncomfortable sharing their honest thoughts with the rest of the group. Involvement should allow all members to be players on the field and not just benchwarmers. A team-based approach that includes molding employees into safety leaders, fostering an action-based safety culture and working to make safety the responsibility of the entire organization often results in superior safety committee performance.

Committee Charter
A charter is needed to drive momentum when creating or working to revitalize a safety committee. Think of this document as a roadmap of your committee’s purpose and mission. A charter can also be viewed as a contract between committee members, identifying many elements of the group and expected outcomes. Roles and responsibilities are described in the charter, as well as objectives for committee success.

A clearly defined charter must be reviewed soon after its creation. This gives committee members the opportunity to review it and provide feedback. Once finalized, all members should sign an agreement stating that the committee has accepted the charter and is ready to conduct meetings. As committee activities progress, the charter can be referred to when any member feels the group is not working toward its intended purpose.

In addition to listing committee roles, responsibilities and objectives, the charter should also reflect expectations at each tier of the safety committee structure. If there are several levels of safety committees within an organization, it’s best for the top level to be strategic. The line operation-level committee should be tactical, working to resolve open actions from committee meetings. Additionally, it’s critical that dialogue about human performance and improvement occurs at each level of the company’s committee structure, since these conversations will help to address the core objectives of safety committees – reducing and eliminating hazards within an organization.

In order for an organization to have a strong safety culture, there must be senior management sponsorship of all aspects of safety programs, and this includes safety committees. A top-down/bottom-up approach is a great way for information to flow where several tiers of safety committees exist. Additionally, a streamlined, comprehensive structure for safety committees, combined with strong sponsorship from top leaders, can enhance employee participation, potentially leading to improved safety and human performance. When senior managers support a safety committee’s purpose and processes, a company’s safety culture can then begin to be positively enhanced.

Effective Facilitation
Once you have management and employee buy-in, and a charter has been created, the next step is to ensure an effective chair is appointed to lead the committee. The person who accepts this position can make or break the group. Chair responsibilities typically include:
• Setting a positive, productive tone for member engagement and dialogue.
• Developing meeting agendas with input from committee members.
• Helping committee members stay focused in order to achieve desired safety meeting results.
• Holding committee members accountable for action items and adequate meeting attendance.
• Encouraging members to take on active committee roles.

As you can see, the safety committee chair has many duties. If you are looking to start or revitalize a safety committee within your company, be mindful that selecting a chair is one of the most important decisions to be made.

A safety committee will not be successful if its members don’t communicate in a clear, efficient manner. This includes strong communication among members about existing safety concerns, as well as with company employees so they are kept up-to-date about those safety concerns and what is being done to resolve them. Essentially, communication needs to occur in all directions.

Committees typically are required to keep meeting minutes so there is documentation of what happened at each meeting. Outside of meetings, members often must interact with one another on projects or other work that is in progress. This can also be a time to communicate with employees depending on the informational or other needs of the committee. One benefit of this type of interaction is that, when employees who aren’t on the safety committee see and hear about actions being taken, they often are more willing to be part of the process by pitching in, offering opinions and suggesting ideas that may lead to better safety solutions.

A quarterly safety committee newsletter is one effective method of companywide safety communication. It allows the group to reach many people without the burdensome effort of contacting each employee individually, and is a great avenue to share necessary information and the company’s safety success stories. To sustain momentum when creating or working to strengthen a safety committee, you have to advertise the work of its members.

Employee Empowerment
One of the side effects of successful safety committees is the empowerment of its members. When they see that they are having a positive impact on workplace safety, it is likely that their motivation to make greater improvements will continue to increase.

Committee members also may experience other dividends. Their roles on the safety committee afford them the ability to grow personally and professionally, potentially resulting in higher self-esteem, improved teamwork skills and future leadership opportunities.

Safety is a team game that requires everyone’s involvement. When a safety committee has the key components in place – a clearly defined charter, executive sponsorship, engaged employees, effective communication, a commitment to constant improvement and trust in one another – the stage is set for continued productivity and success.

About the Author: Richard J. Horan Jr., CSP, CUSP, is a senior safety and health specialist for Allentown, Pa.-based PPL Electric Utilities. He has 36 years of experience, including work as a frontline mechanic and senior safety professional providing risk solutions. Horan is president-elect of the Philadelphia Chapter of ASSE and a member of AIHA. He holds a master’s degree in safety sciences from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Safety Management, Leadership Development

Richard J. Horan Jr., CSP, CUSP

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