Is your Safety Committee ineffective? Are its meetings disorganized? Do members engage in pointless debate and shouting matches instead of focusing on the important safety tasks at hand? If so, I’d like to tell you a little story.
Once Upon a Time. . .
It happened years ago. I had just assumed the title of Safety Manager at a manufacturing plant. To say that conditions were less than ideal would be a gross understatement. The plant had an awful safety record and terrible employee relations. These two things often go hand-in-hand.
A Safety Committee meeting was scheduled during my first week on the job. My boss, the HR Manager, offered to run the meeting—this time. Next month, he warned, the assignment was all mine. I just grinned. I thought he was just being sarcastic. He wasn’t.
In This Corner. . .
I came to the meeting early so I could observe the pre-meeting interactions among committee members. As the various hourly and management personnel arrived in the conference room, I could feel tensions rise. Empty greetings were exchanged as committee members took their seats. I was introduced to the group as the new safety person and then the business began.
Bong. It was like the bell had sounded for Round 1 of a heavyweight title fight. The struggle lasted over an hour. The punches were verbal—mostly gripes and complaints about issues raised in previous meeting. One side of the table—the workers’ corner-- accused the other—the management corner--of not caring enough about safety to spend money to address hazards.
It was a fruitless struggle. Nobody won. Nothing got accomplished.
I knew I was dealing with a dysfunctional committee. And I had a month to figure out how to fix things so that the next meeting would be more productive. After all, the last thing I wanted and the company needed was to endure another session like this.
Based on my observations at the meeting, I had these impressions:
- Hourly employees liked these meetings not because they thought they would do any good but because it gave them a chance to put management on the spot. They seemed to thrive on watching their college-degreed superiors sputter and struggle to make excuses for not getting things done.
- The more items raised as “Safety issues,” the longer the hourly employees were off the floor, getting paid in the process.
- Though management chaired the meeting, their role seemed defensive, making excuses and stating they’d follow-up on the issues. They exercised little control over the proceedings and basically just had to sit back and allow the workers to blow off steam.
As my colleague from HR had promised, when the Safety Committee met again, I was in charge. I planned to use my position as “referee” to implement a new strategy
First of all, I set an agenda, with a firm time limit to the meeting. I delivered a pre-meeting speech to let everyone know that, from now on, these were going to be productive meetings, not just complaint sessions. I also made it clear that although many issues may be brought up, we might not come up with all the solutions at one sitting.
But probably the most effective thing I did to change the atmosphere in the room was to wait by the door for the first hourly employee to arrive at the meeting. As soon as he sat down, I sat next to him. From that time on, the room was mixed between hourly and management, no longer sitting on two sides of the table. “Us-versus-them” vanished!
It worked. The climate immediately improved and so did the productivity. The Safety Committee members actually began working together to explore problems and recommend solutions. I can honestly say that from then on, every Safety Committee meeting with which I was involved produced some form of result.
One year later, the entire Safety Committee, hourly employees and management, wearing the same type and color of specially designed shirt for the occasion, celebrated the plant’s first year without a lost time accident and, together, received a commemorative plague from corporate headquarters for their cooperative effort toward this achievement.
The moral of the story is this: Safety Committees can’t get things done if their meetings lack cohesion, structure and a spirit of cooperation. In a word, Safety Committees need leadership. And it often falls on safety directors to provide it. One of the best ways to meet this challenge is to set down an agenda and a set of guidelines and parameters for meetings. When you impose order, you defuse confrontation and allow the members to focus on the important things: protecting health and safety.