Is your safety committee effective or only functional?

Guy Chenard
As a safety professional, I have spent many years assisting and advising safety committees on their roles within their company or organization’s structure. The fact is, many committees are still struggling with performing their basic duties and are seen as being only functional by the company and the workers they represent.

Most safety committees are developed by the company they work for; their membership is made up of management members selected by the company and worker representatives selected by the union or the workers on site. Many of the safety committee members that I’ve spoken to, both management and workers, felt that they were initially interested in joining the committee but quickly became frustrated with the lack of progress in making effective or worthwhile changes at work. This led to the perception that their safety committee was ineffective. As a result, many of these members would end up quitting or leaving after spending only a short period of time on the committee.

How can you ensure that your safety committee is effective in making positive changes to your safety culture? Start by, if at all possible, selecting committee members who want to be on the committee as opposed to being delegated into this role; it’s much harder to motivate someone to perform their duties when they don’t want to be there in the first place.

Safety committees are designed to play an important role with respect to monitoring and providing recommendations on safety issues at work. What prevents some of them from being better or more effective? I believe that the answer lies in the way that committees have been taught their roles and responsibilities and how they are supported by the organization.

In Canada, most of the government safety regulators (labour ministries) have specific requirements that safety committees must meet. Some provinces even require specific training for committee members to ensure that consistent information is provided.

There are many safety associations and consultants that can provide additional information to help safety committee members understand their roles and objectives according to the government’s mandates.

The next important step is supporting the committee internally. If possible, a company should take advantage of its internal safety resources such as a safety co-ordinator or advisor. This person is ideal to assist the safety committee with any internal issues that are associated with the company.

The safety resource person should be involved with most aspects of the committee’s functions to help identify areas that need improvement. The company’s safety advisor could attend meetings of the safety committee, join members during workplace inspections, help them review company policies and procedures and incident investigations, help them with unresolved concerns, assist them with internal and external committee activities and help to facilitate communications with the company.

In my opinion, the best place a safety advisor can start to support a safety committee is with the development of its terms of reference. This document serves an important purpose for the committee as it is essentially their playbook. The terms provide committee members with a framework that specifies their duties and expectations in order to meet legal (where required) and company requirements.

Remember, safety committees will only be as good as the training provided to make them qualified and the support system that is developed within the company to assist them. I have had the pleasure of working with many safety committees that functioned effectively, as intended by the safety regulators. The additional support given to them was well worth the effort.