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Improving Safety Culture through Effective Safety Committees

Updated: Sep 22, 2023


Multi-level management team inspecting a site

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As businesses and organizations continue to evolve, one of the critical aspects that companies need to prioritize is safety culture. Creating a robust safety culture ensures worker safety, eliminates accidents, and boosts productivity. One way to do this is by establishing effective safety committees. In a nutshell, a safety committee is a group of employees working together to identify and address safety concerns within the organization. That said, there can be different levels of said committees. For instance, you can have one at the location level, which focuses just on the things pertinent to that location. You can have a corporate-level committee that looks at the organization as a whole, allowing for sharing information across locations and coordinating efforts. Then there are upper-level management safety committees. This committee type focuses on the direction safety will take for the whole organization, or at least a significant division of it. With all of that said, this post discusses how safety committees can help improve safety culture and the steps to establish an effective one in any workplace.


The General Benefits of Safety Committees for Safety Culture


Regardless of the tier, a safety committee serves a crucial purpose by bringing together diverse employees to address safety issues. This collective approach affords a comprehensive perspective on safety matters, enabling the identification and rectification of overlooked or unanticipated hazards. Also, it encourages open dialogue and fosters an environment of mutual respect and cooperation, empowering every individual to actively contribute to safety improvements. The amalgamation of insights from various job roles and functions in these committees helps in creating realistic, effective, and implementable safety protocols that resonate with everyone in the organization. By involving employees who are directly affected by these safety measures, committees ensure that the safety culture bridges the gap between management's understanding of safety and its practical, on-the-ground implementation.


High-Level Management Safety Committees


High-level management in a board room meeting

High-level management committees, also called safety steering committees (or similar) have the important task of providing strategic direction for safety initiatives. This committee often consists of high-level EHS leadership personnel, senior operational leadership, risk management representatives, as well as human resources representatives. They set overall organizational objectives related to safety and use that information to guide decisions on how best to manage safety risks in the workplace.


Strengths

A pivotal aspect to note about high-level management safety committees is their composition of company decision-makers. These individuals hold the authority and capacity to allocate the necessary resources required for effective safety improvement implementation. Their influential positions within the organization allow them to institute accountability measures, ensuring that all employees meet the established safety expectations. Their capability to address any unreasonable failures in adhering to safety norms is instrumental in maintaining a robust and proactive safety culture. This level of commitment and investment from the top management is critical in driving organization-wide adherence to safety protocols, reinforcing the fundamental values of safety culture.


Potential Issues

However, a potential drawback of these high-level management safety committees is their distance from the front lines of the business, where safety policies are implemented daily. While they are indispensable in setting strategic direction and allocating resources, their elevated view may sometimes obscure the practical challenges involved in reaching their safety improvement goals. This becomes particularly notable when these goals must contend with the ongoing needs of the business to produce and sell their products.


It's easy to mandate that a safety initiative be implemented, but it becomes significantly more challenging when adequate time, funding, personnel, and other necessary resources must be provided without hampering production and sales in the short term. This is a complex balance to strike, and without a clear understanding of the on-the-ground realities, these committees might fall short of providing the necessary support for these initiatives. This is why it's vitally important to leverage the insights of those closest to the work - your front-line management - to ensure that safety improvements are not just feasible in theory, but also in practice.


Corporate-Level Safety Committees


Corporate Office Skyscraper

Corporate-level safety committees can be likened to a diverse melting pot in terms of their composition. Often, they include representatives from various individual locations, such as plant managers and facility-level Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) personnel. Additionally, members often encompass corporate-level EHS managers and directors, as well as select upper-level management representatives. This diverse group is responsible for communicating company-wide information, such as injury rates, property damages, and environmental incidents. Furthermore, these committees serve as the primary channel for communicating significant changes in safety or EHS. This includes the introduction or updates of policies, programs, and procedures, playing a crucial role in shaping and maintaining the organization's safety culture.


Strengths

An important advantage of the corporate-level safety committee lies in its ability to counteract the tunnel vision that can occur within individual facilities when dealing with safety or EHS issues. When facilities operate in isolation, it's easy to fall into the trap of believing they alone must find solutions to their problems. However, this committee fosters a broader perspective by enabling a free-flow exchange of information among different locations. It not only highlights the common challenges faced but also shares the solutions that have been successfully implemented elsewhere. This platform allows questions to be submitted beforehand, bringing them to the attention of the committee for a comprehensive discussion. Here, ideas are dissected, potential alternatives are deliberated, and modifications to pre-existing solutions are explored, thereby fostering an environment that encourages continuous improvement in the safety culture.


Potential Issues

While corporate-level safety committees play a pivotal role in shaping the safety culture of an organization, there's a potential pitfall that can inadvertently stifle this culture. There is a risk that these committees can devolve into a one-way form of communication, where information is primarily disseminated by the corporate safety or EHS staff, and little to no input is sought from the representatives at the location level. This can lead to a culture of passive acceptance, where employees, instead of actively participating, become mere spectators who merely nod their heads in agreement. In such scenarios, employees may hesitate to voice their concerns or ask questions, fearing that their queries might be perceived as unintelligent or trivial. This reluctance to engage in open dialogue can be counterproductive, and even dangerous. Employees may continue to follow incorrect or misunderstood procedures or potentially hazardous practices because they feel inhibited to seek clarity or propose improvements. Such a situation severely impedes the free flow of information and could undermine the effectiveness of the safety committees, resulting in a detrimental impact on the organization's safety culture.


Location-Level Safety Committees


Manufacturing facility

At the heart of the safety culture transformation are the location-level safety committees. This is where the rubber meets the road in terms of implementation and execution of changes that directly impact the safety standards of the organization. Why? Simply because this is the level where the product is made, hence, where most safety changes are needed due to the various potentially dangerous processes employed in making said product.

Typically, each location-level safety committee is led by a chairperson, who is often the location-level safety or EHS manager, unless stated otherwise by state or other government laws and regulations. This individual may not necessarily bear the managerial title but would have primary responsibility for managing safety at the facility.


Strengths

The location-level safety committee prides itself on its practical focus, analyzing and determining the best approaches to implement safety changes. To ensure a holistic view of implementation, committee members represent various departments at a location. These can range from maintenance staff, production workers from diverse sections, office personnel, shipping and receiving, to members of management. This diverse composition ensures all facets of the organization are considered in the decision-making process, encouraging more comprehensive and effective safety strategies.


Potential Issues

Despite its crucial role in the implementation and execution of safety measures, the location-level safety committee faces significant challenges. One primary hurdle is directly connected to the resource allocation processes of the high-level management safety committees. Remember our discussion about ensuring adequate resources for implementing safety changes? Well, these resources are typically designated to a specific location. However, there may be a disparity between what is assigned and what is genuinely required to achieve set objectives within a given time frame.


For instance, high-level management may authorize the necessary funds for a project, but they might overlook the essential aspect of downtime needed for successful implementation. Imagine the scenario where you are expected to replace outdated equipment with new upgrades while simultaneously maintaining the operation of the old equipment. The task increases in complexity especially if the new equipment is to be installed in the same location as the old one.


Without sufficient resources to facilitate the change, these safety initiatives can easily become sidelined due to the relentless pressure of production demands. This situation underscores the importance of a comprehensive understanding of logistical needs at the high-level management, to effectively support location-level safety committees in enhancing the overall safety culture.


The challenges faced by location-level committees extend beyond the mere allocation of resources. One such challenge is the practical difficulty of assembling the necessary members for productive meetings, particularly in the face of relentless production demands. As committees require the involvement of frontline individuals, pulling these personnel away from their primary responsibilities becomes a logistical issue that, if not properly addressed, can hamper the efficacy of the committee.


Moreover, a pervasive issue that echoes our earlier discussion about corporate-level committees is the potential reluctance of employees to voice their concerns. Some employees might feel apprehensive in expressing their worries, fearing their issues may be dismissed as trivial or that they will be perceived negatively. This creates a barrier in obtaining the practical on-the-ground insights needed to devise the most effective strategies for implementing safety changes. Open, frank conversations are key to making changes that are truly relevant to the front-line staff and can enhance our safety culture. Clear communication and supportive environments need to be fostered to ensure the safety committees function effectively.


Conclusion


Puzzle piece is the solution to open puzzle space problem.

It is evident from our discussion that safety committees play a pivotal role in enhancing the safety culture within an organization. However, a crucial thread linking high-level and location-level committees must be interwoven through the fabric of the organization. It is incumbent upon high-level safety committees to actively engage in a meaningful dialogue with frontline management staff to gain a thorough understanding of what's required to enact effective safety modifications. This includes taking into account necessary downtime, appropriate staffing (whether in-house employees or contractors), and sufficient funding.


When high-level management seeks the insights of location-level committees and frontline representatives, these individuals must be prepared to respond candidly and accurately. This is not a moment for reticence. A good way to help alleviate the reluctance to speak candidly is if high-level management adopts a welcoming and reasonable approach when communicating with their frontline staff. This approach would serve to reassure these staff members that their input is valued and taken seriously, even if the final execution doesn't exactly mirror their initial vision. This synergy between the different levels of management and frontline staff is key to establishing a robust and effective safety culture.


The thread connecting the high-level and location-level safety committees can be the corporate-level safety committee. This structure can pave the way for a wealth of information exchange, making it a tool too valuable to ignore. Larger organizations might find it difficult to arrange meetings that allow for the necessary dialogue to effectively solve problems. However, this should not hinder the flow of communication. Questions can be submitted in advance, and locations can reach out to their counterparts at other sites to brainstorm on various issues.


If there are commonalities in the challenges faced, these can be collectively submitted to the committee chair or management for review and discussion at the next meeting. This practice not only ensures that issues are addressed but also fosters a sense of collegiality and shared responsibility. Ultimately, preserving effective communication between location-level representatives, corporate safety staff, and high-level management is crucial for enhancing and maintaining our safety culture.



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