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Who should chair the safety committee?

Here’s a hint: It’s not a safety professional

By Dave Rebbitt

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.

With representation from both workers and management, the committee can identify and solve issues that may be identified as they arise. It is important that the committee do this in concert with the health and safety management system, but not under the direction of the health and safety department.

The committee is structured so that they can provide direct feedback to management on the functioning of the health and safety system along with recommendations or suggestions for resolving the issues that are brought to the committee.

The committee operates in parallel with the health and safety management system. They do this in much the same way as the health and safety department may communicate with all levels of the organization and ensure that the health and safety system is operating. The committee does this from a different perspective.

Every health and safety committee addresses the specific problems in the workplace that it represents and works collaboratively to find solutions. In working together to find those solutions, they may engage the assistance of the health and safety department for advice and even guidance.

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.

However, a safety committee is tailor-made for that sort of thing. The representatives of the workplace can give early and relevant feedback on any new initiative or changes being contemplated by the company. What better way to promote engagement and help ensure the success of an initiative than to include the health and safety committee in reviewing it and sharing some of the details with the workplace they represent?

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.

The committee can engage in evaluating specific areas or processes within the health and safety management system. They can also evaluate the effectiveness of the entire system if given the appropriate training and information.

Having employees monitoring their own safety system and providing feedback on that system has intrinsic value. It is another layer of protection that monitors the health and safety system, not just for compliance or risk mitigation, but for effectiveness.

Procedures written in offices or created in meeting rooms can fail once they are fielded. They may look good and seem to make sense, but they simply don’t work in the real world, or in the working environment they were designed for.

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”?

If you believe the purpose of the committee is to monitor the health and safety system, then a safety person is perfectly wrong for the job of co-chair.

In essence, this would mean that the health and safety department will be monitoring the work of the safety department. Regardless of how objective any safety person may try to be, it is impossible to remain objective in such a situation.

When a safety person is chairing a safety committee, their passion may get the best of them. They effectively neutralize that additional engagement that a safety committee is meant to provide.

It may also negate any benefits that may be gained by engaging people in the committee. The other co-chair and members of the committee may be, or feel, marginalized.

Instead of another objective agency proactively looking for issues and reviewing current efforts, you may simply have a body indistinguishable from the safety department.

Speak up

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 Rebbitt

Dave Rebbitt is the president of Rarebit Consulting providing services across Western Canada. With almost 30 years in health and safety, Rebbitt has built numerous health, safety, and environment management systems along with some innovative processes and even developed specialized PPE. He is an experienced speaker and writer on a wide variety of topics. He also develops and instructs courses at the University of Alberta OHS program. He can be reached through www.rarebit.ca.
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