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One Secret Hack to Better Safety Steering Committees

Steering committee meeting

If you want to know whether a company takes safety seriously, take a look at the state of the organization’s safety committee. Does it meet regularly? Does it have a clear mandate and the power to get things done? Does it include representatives from various departments, at least some of whom have been identified as safety champions? Does a safety committee even exist at all?

The state of a workplace safety committee is often a primary indicator of the state of an organization’s safety culture. Safety committees exist at the intersection of leadership’s commitment, workers’ buy-in, and organizational capacity for improvement. How effective that safety committee is in meeting milestones and influencing the direction of safety initiatives is often a major determinant of the success of those initiatives.

If this sounds like there’s a lot riding on the success of a safety committee, that’s because there is. In many ways, organizational safety outcomes are hinged squarely on the frame of a safety committee. If the frame is warped or rotten, you’re going to have a hard time opening the door.

And like any high-traffic area, safety committees can be worn down from regular use. Nearly every high-functioning safety committee has at least a few members who report that they feel strained, stretched thin, and overcommitted.

This is doubly so when you factor in the steering committees. Often formed to implement and sustain specific safety initiatives like a new training program, many people treat steering committees like the safety committee’s younger sibling.

It’s not hard to understand why. In many cases, steering committees are offshoots of safety committees. And the membership can tend to somewhat overlap, with some safety committee members pulling double duty by also sitting on the steering committee. Which can be both an asset and a potentially serious problem.

If you’re a safety executive, you want to make sure the safety committee is well-represented on the steering committee and is kept apprised of its activities. What better way to do that than by having some people sit on both committees? The challenge is that you run the very real risk of burnout (and burnout is already an issue for safety professionals). You also gain control but at the cost of perspective—fewer people involved means a smaller range of experience and insight to draw from. This may seem like a small price to pay, but it can have dramatic consequences on the long-term viability of the steering committee. On the flip side, adding new folks to the steering committee can mean they are less invested in its success and require additional time and effort to be brought up to speed.

There is, however, a single maneuver that is often available to EHS folks that can address all these issues: add someone from outside the organization—usually a vendor representative or safety consultant—to the steering committee.

This option typically works best on steering committees that are focused on single, long-term initiatives or an implementation that has lots of stages. Common examples include a training program that will be implemented across multiple shifts or departments, or that has several different steps such as orientation sessions followed by multiple units or educational components.

In these cases, it often makes the most sense for someone from the training provider to sit on the committee so that they can share their wealth of experience and intimate knowledge of the process. This allows the in-house members of the committee to focus on contributing their specialized knowledge of the company’s on-the-ground reality with the vendor’s product and implementation expertise.

Some companies are hesitant at first to work this closely with third parties, choosing to go it alone. But once they understand the value and made the commitment to work with a safety vendor, why not leverage every resource their partner offers to ensure success?

It’s near-impossible to find someone with more incentive to ensure the steering committee is a success than the vendor. It’s their job, and their reputation quite literally depends on it. They’ve also seen firsthand what goes into successful implementations (and, conversely, what to avoid in order to dodge a disastrous implementation). And with everyone’s increased use of virtual meetings, remote participation couldn’t be easier.

There’s a sneaky additional benefit to inviting a safety vendor onto a steering committee: it will help you vet the vendor’s ability to offer long-term support. At SafeStart, we’ve found that our Client Managers are typically eager to join steering committees because, even though it’s a long commitment, it’s one of the ways they can offer timely advice and guidance when it’s needed most. If a potential vendor is reluctant to sit on a steering committee then that might be a sign the vendor isn’t the ideal partner for a major safety initiative.

There are two lessons to take away from all of this. The first is to tweak your vendor vetting process to include questions about steering committees, as this will give you a peek behind the curtains at how dedicated a safety training vendor actually is to long-term success.

And the second is to ask a representative from a vendor to sit on a steering committee. It will reduce strain on other committee members, maintain consistency as new members join, dramatically improve the experience and insight the committee can draw on, and will help to ensure the right decisions are being made at the right time.

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