A joint labor-management safety committee pays dividends because it taps the knowledge of supervisors and workers alike to identify problems and implement solutions. In the process, it overcomes the top- down outlook that workers sometimes associate with management, instead fostering a collaborative attitude toward workplace problem-solving that can improve more than just safety and health.
“Establishing safety committees in construction can be difficult,” says LHSFNA OSH Associate Director Walter Jones, “because the workers, the crafts and the problems change as the project develops. Nevertheless, if management commits to supporting a committee, it can be done and the results will be beneficial.”
It is best to plan for the committee from the beginning of the project. As management considers the phases of the project, it can identify the trades and unions that will be on the site, and it can plan to convene a safety meeting with the initiation of each phase. Whatever the phase, it is important to ensure that the worker representatives have an equal role with management in identifying and assessing safety concerns. If management does not take the initiative to create a safety committee, workers, through their unions, can push for one.
“You can’t just tell workers what to do about safety,” says Jones. “The ‘Safety Cop’ model is self-defeating. Every worker has strong insights and opinions about safety issues, and the goal should be to tap this interest so that each worker will be an encouraged, self-directed safety performer.”
Depending on the situation, the work of the committee may be more formal or informal. If the site is fast-changing, it makes sense that the participants focus less on meetings and more on regular walk-throughs to check conditions, alert the workforce of hazards and identify problems that may need more attention. Also, morning toolbox talks should include a safety component. In more permanent workplaces, a structured and permanent committee is appropriate and useful because issues often have a more long-term nature and require more analysis to determine appropriate solutions.
“The key thing is to find a way to tap into the knowledge and experience of the workforce,” says Jones. “In every situation, there are ways to draw workers and supervisors into a collaborative effort.”
Once this means is found, the issue is follow-through. “If the company does not follow-through,” says Jones, “workers will lose respect for the committee and the company’s commitment to safety. That’s why we say that safety begins at the top, with the CEO.”
The commitment of the top levels of management is vital because conflicts can arise between production goals and safety, particularly in the minds of foremen who are responsible for keeping the work moving. While they may worry about production goals, foremen must appreciate that a motivated workforce will work as quickly as possible toward a safe and timely completion of the project. If top management embraces this approach, it can train its supervisors accordingly.
The LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division can assist companies and local unions that want to initiate or strengthen labor-management safety committees. For more information, contact the Division.