Here’s a hint: It’s not a safety professional
It is no secret that I am a believer in health and safety committees. However, there are many examples of safety committees floundering or failing.
One of the biggest pitfalls I see is that safety people are chairing them. This is not normally the decision of the safety person, but a senior manager. Unfortunately, the safety person ends up in charge of the committee and also becomes one of the co-chairs.
Employers often react to the need for a committee by turning to the safety department. After all, it’s a safety thing, right? Shouldn’t health and safety take care of it?
Employers don’t do this because they don’t care, but because they often misunderstand the intended purpose of a safety committee.
The safety committee must be integrated into the health and safety management system, or program, of the company. That doesn’t mean that it is an integral part of the discrete health and safety function within the company.
The committee’s place
In modern health and safety, we often talk about how we have many layers to prevent loss. We speak of “barriers to loss” or pieces of swiss cheese that form permeable barriers between a hazard and workers. The committee is one of those barriers.
The committee forms another check in the health and safety system. The committee’s primary function is to monitor the operation of the health and safety system.
It’s a two-way street
In working for improvement, health and safety people are often charged with new safety initiatives to improve safety performance. It is often difficult to socialize these initiatives within the company and garner real feedback from the frontline, prior to implementation.
It’s about engagement
In examining the role of the joint health and safety committee, the 1976 Report of the Royal Commission on the Health and Safety of Workers in Ontario Mines (Ham report), pointed out that joint health and safety committees promoted participation of the workforce. The report also identified them as having a role in the functioning internal responsibility system.
Health and safety committees are made to engage employees in the health and safety system the employer has built in order to provide a safe workplace.
The people that represent those workplaces represent another avenue for concerns to be voiced. Those concerns don’t have to be in writing or on a near miss card. It is meant to be an inclusive forum where workers from any level can come with a concern or an issue they have identified.
This provides an additional avenue for communication, hazard identification and risk management.
You can’t monitor yourself
When a safety person becomes the co-chair of the safety committee, it is often doomed. The safety person will always have more training and experience than the members of the committee. They inadvertently may hold too much influence over committee members. Who is going to disagree with the “safety expert”?
Your company may simply assume that safety people should chair a health and safety committee. It seems like a natural assumption to make but shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is they would expect a committee to do. Believe it or not, the committee’s purpose may change with the workplace or the company.
Ironically, the company often relies on the safety department to define the committee’s role and set up the committee.
Helping your employer understand the benefits of committees is worth the effort. It is important that they understand how committees can be hampered by being placed under the direction of a health and safety person. The intent is that committees are effective at representing the workers and monitoring the health and safety system.
A lot of that depends on who sits in the chair.
Dave is President of Rarebit Consulting and has been in safety for 30 years and has led many innovations in safety. He is the most published author, on safety, in Canada publishing safety articles in international peer-reviewed journals and writing online blogs. He is also the author of Effective Safety Committees.
He continues to speak at various conferences and venues on management and safety. He is also engaged in course development and instruction at the University of Alberta OHS certificate program.
Dave holds a master’s degree in business administration and completed the first international research project on safety professionals in 2012. He also sits on the Board of Governors for the board of Canadian Registered Safety Professionals. Dave is also a veteran, having served over 20 years in the Canadian Forces in various capacities, including safety.
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Article originally published in the Canadian Occupational Safety magazine