Safety Committee Development

Consider the time required, the budget needed, and the desired outcomes, and then facilitate the committee's efforts using these triple constraints as boundaries.

We select several management and labor employees to be on the team, get the “lucky members” together, and get them all pumped up. They’re ready to rumble! Next, we announce the committee’s first assignment is to rebuild the engine and transmission in the company van. Once they do the rebuild, their next task is to meet once per quarter to service the van and keep it in tip-top running order.

The committee members seem to freeze. They look at one another with vacant stares while they try to figure out how they will be able to do such a complex task with the level of training and experience they have. What tools will they need? Where will they get them? Where do they start? How can they keep the van in good shape when they meet only every three months to work on it? What’s a transmission? No one says anything; they will try their best.

The scenario above is a bit of a stretch, I’ll admit, but it may not be as far off the mark as it seems. It parallels our getting a committee together, pumping the members up, and asking them to help our company with safety. They often will have the same reaction as the “lucky members” in our make-believe situation above. They may lack the experience and tools needed to do the job, but they will try to help. While engines and transmissions are complicated mechanical systems, I would submit that safety can be infinitely more complex because of the fluid, ever-changing events that occur when you mix complicated mechanical, electrical, chemical, ergonomic, and other systems with even more complicated units we call people. Even as complicated as safety is, though, it can be tamed, and its management concepts can be taught. We can develop a top-notch safety committee if we give the members the tools and training they need. And, while we are at it, we can develop its members even more with only a little extra effort.

Providing Direction and Tools
One of the most important things a safety committee needs is purpose. Oregon OSHA has a very nice description of the purpose of safety committees:

“Safety Committees—Purpose 437-001-0765(1): The purpose of a safety committee is to bring workers and management together in a non-adversarial, cooperative effort to promote safety and health in each workplace. A safety committee assists the employer and makes recommendations for change.” Well said.

Once purpose is established, a safety committee needs direction and guidance. An excellent way to provide this guidance is through the application of some basic project management techniques. Consider the time required, the budget needed, and the desired outcomes, and then facilitate the committee’s efforts using these triple constraints as boundaries.

Traditional safety committee duties may include doing walkthrough inspections of facilities or addressing concerns that have been reported. Members may complete simple checklists, or they may develop solutions to problems. One key point to remember is that the committee serves as a consultant or advisor to management. As consultants, do the members have any training in consulting methods? If not, we may have found a tool the committee is missing.

Let’s look at some other tools the committee may need and, while we’re at it, let’s see whether we can give the people training that takes their skills beyond the scope of the safety committee. Here’s where we can develop the members beyond the norm with very little effort. Let’s start them out (or restart existing committees) with some training on the same basic project management techniques we’ll use to guide them. Let’s train them to understand, at a minimum, the big three constraints of time, budget, and performance criteria and how prioritizing them affects the whole. Have the committee members use project management techniques to guide their own future activities. Show the members how project management methodology is portable and how it can be used as a template across a vast number of other disciplines. Or, if Six Sigma is more your company’s style, train them to green and then yellow belt level. Build a strong base from which the members can continue to grow.

Give the committee some wins as early as possible. Award certificates of completion for the training they attend. Put their training to use as soon as possible so members can immediately apply the skills they just gained and can see a result (a “deliverable,” in project management parlance). For example, if part of the committee’s job is to do workplace inspections, have the members apply their newly acquired project management skills to be trained on hazard identification. The team establishes a timeframe for the training, considers the costs, and defines the outcome needed. Then, when the training is completed, have the committee do a walk-through of the facility and note any new hazard they find.

Take hazard identification to a more advanced level by training the committee on job hazard analysis (JHA).Now that the members understand and can identify hazards such as being struck by an object, caught in or between equipment, excessive noise, chemical hazards, electrical hazards (all of which are just terms that safety folks use as tools to do their jobs), have the committee put this knowledge to immediate use to look at each job in the facility and do formal JHAs or reviews of the existing ones in your facility. Provide some informal recognition when they get done.

Provide training to the committee on how to write recommendations to the employer to correct the hazards that are found during inspections and JHAs. Teach them to illustrate concepts (such as return on investment, to name just one). The combined training listed thus far prepares the group to be the consultants they ultimately are.

Provide training in incident investigation. The prior training in hazard identification and Job Hazard Analysis has laid a foundation from which the team can compare the facts of the incident to documented procedures so that discrepancies in what happened vs. what should have happened can be seen. Have the committee use its recommendation-writing skills to submit a corrective action plan to management. Here, they are acting as consultants.

Recognition and Growth
Safety committees need frequent wins in order to stay motivated. To sustain the wins, they need tasks to do that are truly valuable to the enterprise and whose benefits can be seen. Have the committee review your company’s written plans for the topics in which they have training. Provide any needed training for other topics and have them review those plans, as well, so as to provide another quick application of their knowledge.

Have the committee write up a formal safety recognition plan—one that is separate from the regular recognition plan— using project management techniques. Once the plan is approved, use it on the safety committee for still another win. Close the loop! As the old cliché says, “Success creates success.”

Now, let’s think about all this training. If we did indeed form a committee to rebuild the engine and transmission in the company van, you can bet we would need to train the members. If we have them meet quarterly to do the work, it would be ludicrous to use the hands-on, van-fixing work time to try to train them. On-the-job training can help some if done very carefully, but in the end it all comes back to the triple constraints of time, budget, and performance criteria. Pick any two at the expense of the third. Even when the rebuild is complete, three months without further contact is a long time to try to maintain any gain that may have been realized, both in the repair of the van and in maintaining the skills needed to work on it. We have to have discreet sessions set up for the training and separate, frequent sessions for the application of the training.

Watch the group closely for other opportunities to develop people. Capitalize on strengths, but help turn weaknesses into growth opportunities. One member has the potential to do great presentations? Provide coaching and opportunity. Someone has exceptional organizational skills? Put a spotlight on it. Does another member have extensive knowledge or experience in a given safety subject? Have him or her train the rest of the committee. As the team gains momentum, we as leaders can fade toward the background of the group and enjoy what is perhaps one of the finest pleasures of leadership: watching our people succeed!


This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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