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Establishing and Using Safety Committees at Work.

Research has documented that effective, engaging safety training helps educate employees on proper workplace procedures, practices and behaviors (e.g., Burke et al., 2006; Taylor et al., 2005). Despite the effectiveness of some training, it must be acknowledged that many companies provide certain types of training in order to fulfill regulatory requirements.

For example, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) requires, as a part of its Part 46 training regulations, mining companies to provide 24 hours of training to newly hired employees in the surface metal/nonmetal subsector and eight hours to them annually thereafter. These trainings are required to cover certain topics related to job tasks and hazards, such as lockout/tag out.

Alternatively, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates training for employees only when certain conditions exist but does not require annual refresher safety training like MSHA. These differences in requirements introduce the question, “Do employees who work in an industry where they must participate in mandatory training on an initial and annual basis have fewer accidents, injuries, and fatalities than those who do not have this requirement?”

Although we do not have sophisticated statistical resources to definitively answer this question, research indicates that employees who are not provided adequate safety training are more likely to be involved in an accident or become injured on the job (Burke et al., 2006; Lehman et al., 2009).

When examining the most recent work-related fatalities from 2017, OSHA reported that of the 810,000 workers in the highway construction industry, there were 971 fatalities (OSHA, 2019). Albeit not a direct occupational comparison, of the 197,000 workers in the mining industry in 2017, there were 28 fatalities (Garside, 2019; MSHA, 2019). Calculating the fatality rates per 100,000 hours, this equates to 119.88 fatalities in highway construction and 14.21 in mining, respectively.

Though working environments vary, the stark difference in fatality rates could point to whether annual safety training or other complementary skill development plays a role. Specifically, any positive effects of training should be supplemented with ongoing “refresher” courses for compliance and effectiveness (Katz, 2019; Lehman et al., 2009). Consequently, it seems that ongoing knowledge development, not only in the form of “safety training,” is an important part of employee development. (The comparison in rates assumes that the average number of hours per worker is the same in the two industries.)

Integrating Knowledge and Skill-Building Activities into the Workday

Although training is important, complementary activities that continually focus on knowledge building may have a greater impact on worker attitudes and performance on the job (for a case example of such an approach, see McGuire et al., 2019).

Rather than considering training as an overarching “answer” to a problem, a more encompassing approach may be trying to obtain a higher level of employee engagement through promoting the development of soft skills. Leadership, communication, teamwork, task training of employees, speaking up, and identifying distractions in the workplace are just a few of the topics that can contribute to what is termed “empowerment training.”

Many of these topics have been included in voluntary leadership development training for the construction industry (Center for Construction Research and Training [CPWR], 2016). Skills of effective leaders include the ability to empower team members to identify, report, and act upon unsafe situations; report near misses and other safety concerns; provide solutions; and stop work if necessary (CPWR, 2016; Schneider, 2017). Because these activities occur daily, a program or process must be in place to help facilitate these actions. One approach for continuously supporting ongoing employee engagement is by establishing health and safety (H&S) committees.

Facilitating Employee Development and Engagement through Health and Safety Committees

Practitioners argue that one of the best ways to improve employee involvement and get workers engaged is through employee committees (Maurer, 2013). Health and safety committees are used by organizations to control site risks, foster communication and worker engagement, develop and oversee programs, and monitor site conditions and concerns (Seixas, 2014).

However, health and safety committees can also bring employees and managers together to identify problem areas, make recommendations, and develop a process of ongoing improvement to enhance current programs and practices. Experts in this area often provide suggestions on committee make-up, size, role, and goals. It is important to ensure that everyone on the committee, whether paid hourly or salaried, has an equal voice, is empowered to bring forth recommendations, and is part of the decision-making process (Gillen et al., 2014).

Although not all organizations in occupational health and safety are required to have specific committees (Bukowski, 2014), those with industry experience have likely observed the creation and failure of many such committees.

Too often, instead of a routine health and safety committee being established, they tend to be created during times of crisis but then go away when the problems are corrected. In many cases, safety committees are seen or used as an outlet for people to complain about the lack of processes or support provided by leadership (La Duke, 2012). Specifically, research from Rutgers Occupational Training and Education Consortium (OTEC) (2009) identified common barriers that contribute to the ineffectiveness of safety committees.

These barriers include (1) focusing on list-making processes rather than trying to discuss problems and solutions as a group, and (2) creating supervisor-dominant or management-only committees without concern for the fact that hourly employees should make up a larger portion of such a committee. This way, hourly employees can participate in decision making and help put the health and safety needs of the workforce first. Despite these challenges, safety committees have the potential to make a difference if they are developed in a way to facilitate autonomy and serve as a venue for positive change.

The Need for Positive Committee Examples

Perhaps one of the gaps in safety committee development and implementation is that few exemplars exist that the industry can use to get started. CRH Americas has made recent attempts in improving worker engagement activities, in part, based on participation in a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) safety climate research initiative over the last several years (Haas et al., 2017; McGuire et al., 2018; McGuire et al., 2019), which showed that worker engagement was a critical fix needed to improve worker perceptions and performance.

For example, within a sample of 2,945 mineworkers from 40 locations, 24.3% of the participants felt that supervisors do not listen to workers’ health and safety concerns. Additionally, 29.6% of participants felt that they are not involved in health and safety decisions on site. Due to the overall neutral to negative perception of worker engagement on site, results indicated that getting employees involved and listening to their feedback would further enhance safety performance and processes.

Additionally, other CRH Americas locations such as Prairie States Paving participated in a third-party, standardized safety culture assessment. From this survey, a great deal of complementary and overlapping information was obtained on safety-related issues and problems as revealed in the NIOSH survey. In general, results helped initiate actions the company could take to get employees engaged in safety processes.

Several recommendations were available to the company; however, two feasible actions were identified in particular. First, it was important to take the time to share results of the surveys with all employees. Second, management felt that developing safety committees would help find solutions to the problems identified by employees.

To that end, after Randy Hattesohl, vice president from CRH Americas Materials, reviewed the results of the surveys and the recommendations, meetings were scheduled with the two companies that make up Prairie States Paving: Des Moines Asphalt Paving (Des Moines, Iowa) and Omni Engineering (Omaha, Neb.). CRH’s goals were to review the results of the surveys with all employees and create employee-driven health and safety committees. This process is discussed below.

A Case Study in Developing and Using Committees to Facilitate Worker Empowerment

First, CRH decided to use an outside facilitator to commence two strategic safety meetings with employees at each site during April 2019. Management felt that the use of an outside facilitator would allow the employees to feel more comfortable voicing any concerns about the perceived safety culture and employee engagement efforts.

Brainstorming to Identify Problems

Using a small group discussion format, 89 employees from Des Moines Asphalt Paving and 118 from Omni Engineering were asked to identify what they believed were the biggest safety-related issues or problem areas which might be having a negative effect on their safety culture. After lengthy discussion, the groups’ responses were written on large Post-it sheets were then hung on the walls. After, the following processes took place:

  • Employees were given five small Post-it notes to use to cast votes for what they believed to be the biggest issue or issues affecting health and safety at their places of work. They could cast all five votes for one issue or vote for different areas.
  • Employees were asked to write on the Post-it notes the reason or reasons they felt their choice was the most important issue.
  • Employees were asked to attach their Post-it notes to the bigger sheets hanging on the walls.
  • Votes were tallied and the top ten issues were identified (refer to Table 1).

Table 1. Top 10 Issues Affecting Prairie States Paving Health and Safety (listed in order of importance)

Des Moines Asphalt Paving

Omni Engineering

Poor/inadequate communication

Poor/inadequate communication

Lack of training

Lack of training

Spotter related issues

Bad attitudes

Repairs/equipment/tools

Lack of teamwork

Safety programs/awareness

Pressure to produce

Failure to speak up

Subcontractor issues

Supervisor/manager/leader issues

Complacency

PPE (lack of or quality)

Failure to speak up

Insufficient reinforcement

Supervisor/management issues

Pressure to produce

Inconsistent discipline

Worker responses not only identified the top issues perceived to affect the safety culture, but also provided senior management with some insight into where the issues were consistent between sites and perhaps across the company. After general issues were revealed, subcommittees could be convened to start addressing some of them.

Forming Sub-committees

After the identification and prioritization of topics was complete, four small health and safety committees were formed to help senior managers find ways to manage specific issues. When assembling the committees, some predetermined rules were prescribed:

  • Each committee would have approximately 12 members.
  • Committees must include both hourly and salaried employees but there could be no more than two salaried employees on each committee.
  • Each committee was responsible for selecting one member to be the chairperson – this person could not be a salaried employee.
  • The committees must meet at least once a month.
  • An outside facilitator would guide the committee meetings.
  • Committee recommendations would be brought to the Steering Committee, comprised of five senior leaders, for review, prioritization and action.

Meeting and Acting

Shortly after convening the committees, face-to-face meetings started. As of September 2019, seven meetings had been held. However, it took some time to get to buy-in and for people to have an open mind. One employee said, “In the beginning, it was a struggle.  We had a diverse group of workers that were skeptical in management’s willingness to make real change based off of the group’s recommendations.” However, once management and the steering committees not only listened, but showed action – which was revealed as critical within NIOSH’s safety climate research (Haas, 2019) – discussions continued to evolve. For example, one area manager (Area Manager 1) noted:

“I think the committees have been a valuable resource for employees. It’s their opportunity to speak up about ideas or concerns that they have. I think that these committees have been successful for us because we have employees that really care about the people they work with and want to help make our organization better. We are actually acting on the ideas that these committees come up with so they are actually seeing a benefit from their input.”

As discussed by the area manager above, when the steering committee started acting upon the recommendations of the safety committee and making changes, the committee felt a sense of accomplishment. Obviously, action among higher-level managers initiated additional engagement on behalf of the committee. Some of the issues discussed and eventually fixed are showcased in Table 2.

Table 2. Issues Identified and Solutions Implemented on Behalf of Safety Committees

Issues Identified by Committees

Changes Made and Solutions Implemented

Unnecessary talking on CBs and company radios limits effective project-related communication.

Committee members took a leadership role and discussed improving radio communications in daily safety meetings. This issue has gotten better.

Poor or inadequate communication between drivers, plants, crews and leaders.

The committee and managers outlined a plan to enhance employees communication at all levels. This issue is constantly discussed in daily safety meetings and with crews. Comments from frontline workers indicate communication and safety behaviors in some areas have gotten better.

Information about jobs or projects is not passed down to crews.

Supervisors are providing more information, in a timely manner, to frontline employees about job or project changes.

It is difficult to communicate effectively between some equipment operators.

Safety committees recommended communication between equipment operators and drivers could be improved by installing radios in skid steer loaders, distributor trucks, and motor graders. Those working near or around these pieces of equipment believe safety has been enhanced since the radios were installed. To continue improving communication and safety, more portable radios are being provided to workers on projects when needed.

Radio communication in plant areas is confusing and causes conflicts between plant personnel and truck drivers.

Assigning a radio channel to use in plant areas has improved the quality of communication between plant personnel and truck drivers, eliminated confusion, reduced conflict, and increased the level of cooperation between drivers and plant personnel.

Inconsistent hand signals are a problem.

A handout showing correct hand signals was created and posted on bulletin boards and passed out to crews, shops, and contract trucking companies.

Hired truck drivers are not wearing required clothing, shoes, and other PPE.

Committee members talked about the issue with senior managers, who in turn, talked with owners of hired trucking companies and advised them what is required and expected regarding the use of PPE. Subsequently, any hired drivers not in compliance with PPE requirements have been removed from plants and projects. The use of PPE by hired drivers is being enforced and followed.

Poor housekeeping on and around box spray down racks.

Housekeeping around and on spray down racks has improved – they are being cleaned on a regular basis which has eliminated slip and fall hazards.

Inappropriate cleaner is being used to wash down truck boxes.

Slat cleaner is an oil-based product and can cause environmental issues. The safety committee spearheaded an effort to transition from using slat cleaner to environmentally friendly release agents sprayed from the overhead systems.

Required task training processes can be improved.

All safety committees discussed this topic and concluded task training is not being done and documented as it should be. The committee recommended that the Steering Committee create a plan to improve task training. Consequently, senior leadership is evaluating the way task training is conducted and is going to develop best practices to ensure it is being done properly as well as documented.

Mandatory attendance at daily safety meetings was not being followed by some crews.

The safety committee brought this issue to the attention of senior managers who met with foremen and field supervisors to discuss this issue. Employee attendance is being documented and enforced at daily safety meetings.

An area safety manager observed the processes these safety committees go through and noted, “It has been great to see a collective group of employees come together and volunteer time to focus on making safety a priority and help drive our safety culture into the future.” Additionally, he noted that some improvements made recently have come from the committees because, “they focus in on a micro level which helps bring to light real concerns and improvements that help keep everyone safe.”

The interesting phenomenon demonstrated in these examples is that – more than just seeking to improve safety, health, and environmental issues, which are included – safety committees focused heavily on issues related to overall communication. This trend among the committees goes back to the value of soft skill development promoting the knowledge and abilities of workers being able to do their jobs more effectively. Eventually, the committees started to serve an important role in enhancing overall communication and leadership, becoming a natural part of the company health and safety management system.

Sustaining Health and Safety Committees

The examples shown in Table 2 demonstrate just some of the improvements the Prairie States Paving team has accomplished through its committees. The examples also show that sustaining these efforts takes more than hanging posters on breakroom bulletin boards. To be successful, it takes employees working together and negotiating priorities.

The company leaders encouraged their safety committee members to identify hazards, outline unsafe behaviors or conditions, and then be creative in finding solutions. This process empowered employees to take the lead in correcting the problems or issues they found. Also, senior managers regularly communicated about what could be accomplished and when, so the improvement process was transparent. This follow-up is critical, as failure to follow up from management has been identified as a reason that safety committees are generally not sustained (Rosenfeld, 2016). To illustrate the impact, an area manager (Area Manager 2) said the following:

“I certainly feel they [the committees] have been useful and effective. Our success has been due to an engaged committee led by our field people and management holding itself accountable to address concerns. We haven’t been able to accomplish a solution to every idea or topic brought forth by the committee, however, we have delivered a number of improvements to the organization. Some have been quick wins and others are in progress.”

Other barriers identified by Rosenfeld (2016) include lack of communication, agenda, and purpose. Some of these barriers are difficult to avoid but can be overcome if people are willing to observe and acknowledge where things can be improved.

For example, one employee said, “The first couple of meetings were very unstructured because members had a lot of safety items they wanted to voice their opinions on and this was their platform to portray their concerns.” However, this employee said that their specific committee chair “did an excellent job of letting them voice their frustrations but, ultimately reigning them in and providing the structure necessary to move forward.”

This observation shows the importance of having a strong committee leader, regardless of rank on site, who can provide space for people to discuss concerns but also keep the group moving toward a common goal.

To that end, Prairie States Paving’s safety committees were able to avoid many of the other barriers at its onset by forming the groups in the right way, with ample participation from hourly employees. Additionally, hourly workers shared feedback about CRH’s process for establishing the committees, which helped inform ways to sustain the groups.

For example, one hourly employee said, “I would say that [the outside facilitator’s] involvement with his knowledge and experience is a big contributing factor in helping us stay together,” which also shows that, to start, having an outside voice may be needed to get people talking.

Continuous Follow-up to Close Perceptual Gaps

Employee engagement has been discussed as an emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals (Society for Human Resource Management [SHRM], 2016). Specifically, engaged workers have demonstrated more commitment to their work and to the success of the company, which can result in putting in more effort, taking pride in quality products, helping coworkers, experiencing fewer incidents, and providing feedback on ways to improve the work environment (Boeldt, 2017).

In the case discussed here, the feedback obtained from those at the hourly and highest levels of management indicated that the use of effective safety committees can improve employee engagement while also improving the safety culture and outcomes.

To date, process evaluations with the four safety committees have shown encouraging feedback. Specifically, all the hourly employees who are currently participating in the committees have indicated they would like to be involved next year too, expressing satisfaction that they volunteered and have put in this additional time. To illustrate, an hourly employee stated the following:

“My opinion on why the safety committee has thrived is that management has followed up with action on our suggestions. It creates an atmosphere of teamwork. When people see action, their attitude changes to one of engagement in the safety culture. The people on the committee volunteered so I believe we are people who realize the importance of safety and who are willing to take a look at issues and find a solution.”

Finally, Hattesohl reflected on how this process has helped open his eyes to how health and safety can always be improved, even if there is no recognition of blatant problems. He stated:

“My assumption was that since we had plenty of work, no one was complaining and our safety record was improving year after year, life was good for our fellow employees. Until we participated in a Safety Perceptions Survey, I really had no idea how much of a perception disparity there was between the salaried and hourly personnel. This [safety committee] process is intended to improve, not only our safety culture, but also overall employee contentment with their positions and the growth opportunities that are available to them. Our committee members have put a lot of time and effort to ensure the success of this process.”

Summary

In summary, some companies may choose to only focus on training from a perspective of quantity each year. Research shows that such annual training does help, albeit the effects are likely short-term. Rather, companies who have used results from typical safety culture surveys have been able to identify ways to sustain knowledge building and employee involvement all year while also making their job sites safer places to work.

In the case discussed in this article, almost 30% of participants in initial safety perception surveys indicated they did not feel involved in health and safety on site. In the process evaluation of the safety committee participants, however, no participants felt unengaged. Rather, 73% felt highly engaged whereas 27% were neutral.

Although there is still room to improve, it is clear perceptions about employee engagement are moving in the right direction and over time, feelings of engagement and ultimately, the decision to participate, will spread to additional workers who want to play a more active role in health and safety at work.

Disclaimer

The findings and conclusions in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Reference to specific brand names does not imply endorsement by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

This article was written by Joseph McGuire, PhD, HSE Consultant; Emily Haas, PhD, Research Scientist, NIOSH Pittsburgh Mining Research Division; and Randy Hattesohl, vice president, CRH Americas Materials.

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