Safety Teams – An Important Key to Culture Change

According to the February 6, 1955 Des Moines Tribune, “The State Senate of Illinois yesterday disbanded its Committee on Efficiency and Economy, for reasons of efficiency and economy.”

There are lots of articles out there about Safety Committees. Meriam Webster defines a committee as “a body of persons delegated to consider, investigate, take action on, or report on some matter.” For me over the years, the word “committee” has developed certain connotations as being a group of people that meets too often for too long to discuss too much without getting a lot done. I have taken a different approach to these groups for a couple years and tend to call them “teams”, defined by Meriam Webster as “a group of people who work together.” You will get better results with a “team” than with a “committee.”

I’ve been working in the Environmental, Health and Safety field for more than 25 years and have developed Safety Teams for a number of companies. My last corporate position was with an international company, with responsibility for employee safety at multiple facilities across the globe. I couldn’t be everywhere at once, so it was necessary to have people at each facility to be my “eyes on.” These Safety Teams performed a number of functions, and without them, I couldn’t have effectively done my job.

Since then, I’ve encouraged my clients to develop a Safety Team as a way of getting the employees involved in the Safety program. Other benefits include:

  • Demonstrating management concern for the employee’s well-being
  • Increasing employee Safety awareness
  • Making changes to reduce injuries and cut the related costs, including Worker’s Compensation.
  • Improving employee morale
  • Reducing the risk of OSHA citations and penalties

The purpose of a Safety Team is to bring workers and managers together to promote and maintain a safe, healthful workplace. A Team ensures that safety is treated as an integral function of the company. Participants can vary based on the type of facility. Some companies have Team members from the EH&S Department and production workers. Others include members from engineering, quality, and management. Whatever the make-up, teamwork is the key. Each member must have assigned tasks and responsibilities, and the opportunity to contribute.
Safety Team functions can vary depending on the specific needs of the company and the safety program. Some possible functions may include:

  • Making recommendations for change
  • Detecting hazards through facility inspections
  • Analyzing and solving problems
  • Reviewing new chemicals and maintaining Safety Data Sheets
  • Conducting accident investigations and analyzing injury trends
  • Reporting findings and making recommendations to management
  • Performing safety equipment inspections, i.e. fire extinguishers, eyewash/safety showers, spill kits, etc.
  • Taking lead roles in emergency response and evacuations

Critical elements in developing a Safety Team include:

1. Establishing a Foundation

  • Get management commitment to both the time necessary and to implementing necessary and feasible recommendations
  • Establish a common objective
  • Establish an effective method of communication between the Team, Management and the employees
  • Set clear expectations and reasonable objectives
  • Develop an effective corrective action system that ensures that corrections are followed through in a timely manner

2. Recruiting Team Members

  • The first question to consider is how many members does your team need. You don’t want the Team to be too large, but it should have some representation from your primary departments. As a rule of thumb, if your company has less than 200 employees, plan on no more than 10 members; with more than 1000 employees, you should look at multiple Teams for adequate coverage.
  • Look first for volunteers. These employees want to be there and are more likely to attend and contribute.
  • When possible, include members from all levels of the organization:
    • Managers can help communicate needs to upper management, make needed decisions, and be more effective in getting funding, where needed.
    • Supervisors play a key role in communication with the workers and in implementing changes.
    • Employees on the Team will send a message to all the workers that the Team values their involvement and input on Safety issues.
    • Facilities and Human Resource presence on the Team can be crucial to being effective and getting things done.

3. Team Formation

  • Team leadership. Select someone to lead the Team with knowledge, dedication to Safety and the ability to interact with the others towards effective results.
  • Establish clear and practical goals for the Team.
  • Cleary define the functions that the Team and its individual members will perform, and provide training, as needed to perform those functions.

4. Safety Team Meetings

  • Establish a set meeting frequency, but be flexible. I recommend monthly meetings to start. Once the Team is functioning, you may find that you can adjust this to every other month, or quarterly, as long as this gives your Team adequate time to be effective. Quarterly meetings should be a minimum.
  • Set the meeting schedule for the same time and date each month, e.g., the first Wednesday of each month at 1:00 PM. Allow adequate time for the meetings, but try not to exceed one hour. Set the meeting using a company network calendar, like Outlook, so that these meetings will show up on everyone’s calendar.
  • Prepare a format for meeting agendas and minutes. Keep good records and documentation of the meetings, including recommendations, assigned tasks, and corrective actions.
  • Use the meetings to assign responsibilities and target dates for new Safety issues, review status on past issues, discuss projects, Team inspections, etc.

5. Communication

  • Post names of the Safety Team members throughout the facility, and let the employees know that these are contacts for them, if they have safety concerns. Also establish a method that the employees can use to make suggestions or voice concerns, e.g., suggestion boxes. And bring these concerns up at the Team meetings. These concerns need to be taken seriously, and deserve a response, even if the answer is no.
  • Use the agenda and minutes to communicate with the Safety Team members. The minutes can also be posted for all employees to see that the Team is working to their benefit. Copy managers and supervisors when you send out the minutes, so they know what’s happening and how it might affect them, their departments and employees.
  • Periodically acknowledge the Team members for their contributions.
    Like any other company function, Safety Teams can pose some challenges. These are some pitfalls to avoid:
  • Make sure that it’s clear to all the employees and management that the Safety Team doesn’t bear total responsibility for Safety at your company. Safety takes effort by everyone, from upper management to the custodian and everyone in between.
  • Try not to limit Team membership to only specific levels or groups within the organization.
  • Don’t expect overnight results. Culture change takes time.
  • Avoid “assigning” members to the Team. Volunteers make more valuable members.
  • Avoid complacency. Rotate members periodically to get a fresh perspective.
  • Realize that not all safety concerns brought to management will be addressed.
  • Don’t waste time and effort. Assess risk to set priorities.
  • Maintain confidentiality when discussing employee injuries.
  • Don’t assign Team members to perform Safety inspections without some training and guidance. Like anything else, they can’t do the job as effectively if they don’t know how.
  • Stay on track. Document everything, including meetings, decisions, recommendations, and follow-up for corrective actions.
  • Be willing to go outside the company for the right resources.

Note that while there are currently no Federal requirements for Safety Committees, most states do have requirements in one form or another. Be sure to check with your state to see what is or isn’t required. Also note that the CalOSHA IIPP requirements include Safety Committees, and that OSHA is considering adopting similar requirements on a Federal level.

Other strategies that you should consider for your safety program:

  • Monthly Supervisor training topics
  • Plant meetings
  • Group employee meetings
  • Safety alerts and newsletters
  • Safety incentive programs
  • Near miss reporting and evaluation

Safety Teams are critical to developing and maintaining a safe workplace. An effective Safety Team can reduce workplace injuries, and the costs that directly affect a company’s bottom line. Employees will recognize that the company is serious about safety and will gradually become more safety-aware, which will contribute to a positive change in your company’s safety culture.

Special thanks to Laura Malone, who I worked with on this topic several years ago.

Chuck Paulausky, CHMM, is President of CPSE LLC, a consulting firm specializing in OSHA and EPA compliance and loss control for small to medium-sized businesses. Chuck is active with several professional and business organizations and is an AHMP Champion of Excellence Award winner. For over 25 years, Chuck has been providing safety, environmental, and worker’s compensation support to companies in Arizona, Texas, California, Minnesota, Washington, Utah, Europe, and Asia. Chuck can be reached at: 480-694-1975, cpaulausky@www.cpsafety.net, www.cpsafety.net
This article was published in the 2014 Dec/Jan issue of the Journal of Environmental Management-Arizona