Course 701 - Effective OSH Committee Operations

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Role, Purpose, and Function

Introduction

You don't have to climb a mountain and sit on a big rock for six days to gain a vision about the role and mission of the safety committee. It might take a little more thought for you to understand how you can help the safety committee perform an effective role and fulfill its mission.

So, let's first take a look at the concept of "role" and how it applies to the safety committee.

Definition

Look up the definition of "role" in the dictionary and you'll find something like:

  • The characteristic and expected social behavior of an individual;
  • A position or title.

Roles are labels that help define who we are, how we should personally behave, and what we should be doing as an individual or as a member of a group.

I'm sure the position you occupy as a worker or manager in your company has some sort of formal title that helps you and others identify your role and associated duties. Along with that role come responsibilities and a certain level of status. Attached to every role you "play" is a set of expected behaviors and activities that are considered appropriate for that position.

Take a look at the following list of common roles. The odds are you play one or more of these roles.

  • At home: mother, wife, father, husband, son, daughter, aunt, uncle.
  • In the community: youth group leader, coach, club officer.
  • At work: receptionist, supervisor, welder, trainer, nurse.

Of course, there are many more roles we can play, but you get the idea. Each is unique with its own set of performance expectations.

Importance of Knowing the Role of Safety Committee

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What we do depends on who we think we are. If safety committee members think they are consultants to others, they will do and say things that send a message that they can be trusted. Employees will seek their help and appreciate their work. If safety committee members think they are cops, they will do and say things in a manner that is likely to result in mistrust. An effective safety culture can not exist in a climate of mistrust.

Safety Committee's Role

One way of looking at the role of the safety committee is to think of it as an internal consultant group with expectations and responsibilities similar to that of a consultant hired by the company. Such a consultant would be asked to:

  • survey and interview employees to find out what they are thinking and feeling;
  • observe employees to analyze behaviors;
  • inspect the workplace to uncover hazardous conditions;
  • audit safety programs;
  • uncover the surface and root causes of safety problems;
  • develop and submit written recommendations;
  • monitor the progress of corrective actions and system improvements; and
  • evaluate the long-term quality of the safety culture.

It's important to note that none of these responsibilities requires the safety committee to actually control safety programs or "police" employees. When the safety committee assumes the role of a consultant group within a company, it need not, and should not, be expected to control a budget, purchase equipment, correct hazards or enforce safety rules.

Are you a cop or consultant?

Link to Steve's biography page

Multiples Roles

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As a safety committee member, you perform multiple roles. Let's see how this affects your responsibilities:

  • When performing the role of a safety committee member you are performing the role of a consultant:
    • Warn employees, but do not report "names" to the supervisor
    • Report unsafe behaviors to the committee chairperson so the safety committee can discuss how to fix the root causes (system weaknesses).
    • Help management "do" safety (enforce, supervise, and manage), but don't do it for them.
    • Listen to employee concerns about safety and let the safety committee know about it.
    • Educate employees, but do not try to enforce safety rules: that's a line responsibility.
  • When performing the role of an employee, you should have the authority to warn the employee, but again, you're not a cop. Report the behavior to your safety committee member, and if you are comfortable with it, to your supervisor without naming names.
  • When performing the role of supervisor or manager, you are the agent of the employer and are legally the "cop" who should enforce safety.
    • If you catch someone misbehaving and you have properly trained them, they have the proper resources, time, support, etc., you're probably justified in disciplining the employee.
    • Address behaviors with everyone in training and safety meetings. It resets employee accountability when the supervisor tells all employees they are not allowed to engage in a particular unsafe behavior.

Enforcing safety rules is a line function, not a staff function.

Remember, writing "tickets" for violating safety rules can be especially disastrous to the success of the safety committee's effectiveness. Enforcing safety is considered "doing" safety and is a line responsibility from the CEO down through first line supervisor.

Role Conflict

If you are a member of your company safety team AND a supervisor, how do you discipline your employees for unsafe behavior? Let's take a look at a scenario below to set the scene.

Scenario

Larry is an important member of his company's safety team. However, he is a supervisor as well. During his workday, he notices one of his subordinates is not wearing the proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Larry wants to correct the unsafe behavior; however, he is unsure how to find the balance of helping the safety cause at work and actually enforcing it. Since he is a line supervior, should he discipline the workers or should he actually refrain from discipline because he is a safety team member?

This is a good question and his response as both a supervisor and safety committee member depends on the role he is playing at the time. For instance:

If you're conducting a safety inspection as a member of the safety committee and see your employee failing to use PPE, you should let him or her know the role you're playing and ask another inspection team member to interview the employee in private to determine surface/root causes for the behavior.

Here are some sample questions you may ask:

  • Are you receiving proper supervision?
  • Have you been trained on how to use PPE?
  • Do you believe that you'll be disciplined is "caught" violating safety rules?
  • Is the PPE you're supposed to use suitable?
  • Are you physically able to use the PPE?
  • Do you think your supervisor believes working fast is more important than working safe?

You should remind the employee to use PPE, and you would enter the observation/behavior (not the employee’s name) and interview responses into the safety inspection report. The information gathered in the interview would be analyzed to determine root causes (system weaknesses). Even though you are the employee's supervisor, you would not discipline the employee because you're not acting as the employee's supervisor during the inspection. Yes, if you think it's best, you might ask someone else to conduct the inspection in your department as there might be a role conflict. It also assures someone else is observing in your department.

If you are performing a safety inspection as the employee’s supervisor, and you see the same failure to use PPE, your response would be that as the supervisor. Before considering any discipline, you would first determine if you have fulfilled your supervisory obligations (Supervision, Training, Accountability, Resources, Support) to the employee. If you have, some form of progressive discipline might be the proper action. However, if you have not met your obligations, touch-caring leadership would require that you apologize to the employee and make a commitment to get him or her what’s needed to perform safely.

The Safety Committee Must Communicate Effectively

One of the most important responsibilities of the individual safety committee representative is to receive safety concerns from employees, report those concerns to the safety committee, and provide timely feedback to employees on the status or response to those concerns. Failure to effectively fulfill this important responsibility has the potential to render the safety committee unsuccessful in its ability to help the employer solve safety-related problems.

Blast from the Past - Here's a little talk during an OR-OSHA training session. The message: If you people in the dark, they think the worst.

Steve's image

The safety committee should also be communicating regularly with management, both in and out of the safety committee setting. It's vital that managers be directly involved in and participate as members of the safety committee. Safety committees generally communicate formally through written recommendations and safety committee minutes.

Once again, the ability to run effective meetings, and write concise minutes and strong recommendations that provide useful information is critical in fulfilling this purpose. In some instances, the safety committee may be quick to accuse management of a lack of support when, in reality, the safety committee, itself, may not be providing useful information enabling management to make decisions and take action.

Quality education and training is the key to ensuring the safety committee communicates effectively to staff and management.

"Purpose" - The Intended Result or Effect

Armed with insight into the role of the safety committee, let's take a look at what the committee's purpose might be. A quick review of our friendly dictionary once again defines "purpose" as:

  • A desired or intended result or effect.

As you learned above, the safety committee performs the role of an internal consultant group with primary responsibilities to provide expert advice and assistance. Some companies create a "vision statement" that reflects who they are. This is a statement about their role in the community and society in general.

A company may write a mission statement that explains what they do to support their vision. The purpose of the safety committee might be viewed as its mission and reflects what the safety committee intentionally does to support its assigned role.

Major Purposes of the Safety Committee

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What are some of the primary reasons for the safety committee to exist? The safety committee should:

  • help to protect the employer by providing useful information;
  • help to protect the employee by responding to safety concerns;
  • bring labor and management together in a cooperative way to solve problems;
  • help the employer educate and motivate all employees about the importance of safety; and
  • help the employer educate and motivate all supervisors and managers to identify hazards and take corrective action.

All of these purpose statements emphasize the safety committee's responsibility to assist the employer, not to do the safety job for the employer.

Management may be able to delegate authority for managing safety programs to the safety committee on paper, but the argument that authority (and therefore, responsibility) was delegated will not suffice as a valid excuse if the workplace is determined to be unsafe.

The responsibility and accountability for safety and health rests squarely on the shoulders of line managers from top to bottom because they, not the safety committee, hold the ultimate authority and control of the workplace.

results

"Function" - Describes the Actual Result or Effect

Purpose and function are related terms, but differ significantly in meaning. Our dictionary definition states that "function" is:

  • Something closely related to another thing and dependent on it for its existence, value, or significance.

Whereas "purpose" states the intended result or effect, "function" describes the actual or unintended result or effect. The actual outcome depends on the success of the attempt to carry out the intended purpose. If the safety committee does not effectively carry out its intended purpose, it may unintentionally function to hurt the company's safety and health effort.

The Function of the Safety Committee

Function can be considered a dependent variable. It is dependent upon the effectiveness of a group to follow through with its stated purpose. The safety committee may have the best intentions, but if it cannot follow through effectively with its plans, it may actually function to harm a safety program or activity rather than help it.

Without education and training, safety committee members may not have the basic knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform their responsibilities. Given proper education and training, the safety committee is more likely to function to carry out its intended purpose.

For instance, the safety committee may intend to increase interest in safety by implementing a safety incentive program, but if its members do not have the knowledge, skills, or abilities to accomplish this purpose, they may develop a totally reactive incentive program that results in dismal failure. The lesson -- It's not good enough just to do the right thing...you've got to do the right thing right!

Function is Dependent on Purpose!

So, why is it so important to understand the relationship between purpose and function? The safety committee may have wonderful goals and objectives that support its intended purposes, however:

  • if the safety committee does not have the ability, for whatever reason, to meet those goals, it will have great difficulty in carrying out its stated purpose; and
  • the safety committee may actually (unintentionally) function to hurt, not help its safety program.

Final Word

These concepts are actually not too difficult to understand, but that understanding is absolutely essential to your ability to be an effective member of a safety committee, and to the overall success of the committee. OK... on to the quiz!!!

Instructions

Before beginning this quiz, we highly recommend you review the module material. This quiz is designed to allow you to self-check your comprehension of the module content, but only focuses on key concepts and ideas.

Read each question carefully. Select the best answer, even if more than one answer seems possible. When done, click on the "Get Quiz Answers" button. If you do not answer all the questions, you will receive an error message.

Good luck!

1. In the most effective safety cultures, the safety committee performs the role of a...?

2. As a safety committee member, which activity below would be inappropriate?

3. Which of the following is a purpose for the safety committee?

4. The function of a safety committee depends on ______________.

5. This is one of the most important responsibilities of a safety committee representative.


Have a great day!

Important! You will receive an "error" message unless all questions are answered.

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