Joint H&S committees: An opportunity, not a nuisance

Virtually every workplace with more than 20 employees is required to have a joint health and safety committee.

Some organizations treat the committee as a necessary evil. For those organizations, it may often feel the committee causes more problems than it solves.

Others look at the committee as an opportunity. In those places, the committee will likely lead to a healthier and safer workplace and help foster good relations between employees and management, say occupational health and safety experts who talked with Canadian HR Reporter.

There are fewer organizations that treat joint health and safety committees (JHSC) as a nuisance, says Dilys Robertson, health and safety consultant and author. Ten years ago it was tough to find JHSC success stories. In the last two or three years, it has gotten a lot easier, she says.

The motivation for a good health and safety record is no longer legislative, she says. Organizations are striving for organizational excellence and customer satisfaction. They want to have a well-functioning system and high-quality assurance. “The new drivers really stem from global competition and the desire to meet international standards like ISO.”

International standards of excellence put a lot of emphasis on employee participation and things like joint health and safety committees, she says. Even in the U.S. where there are few requirements for workplace committees, many organizations are putting them in place. Well-run committees are viewed as a cornerstone for total employee empowerment, she says.

Maybe so, but other H&S experts say it is still not that unusual for JHS committees to end up mired in turmoil.

Usually if a committee is having problems, it’s because they get off on the wrong foot, says Theresa Frechette, who runs a safety consulting business out of Barrie, Ont. and is a member of the board of directors of the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering.

In some cases, management and employee members come to the committee with agendas or determined to win something for their side rather than create a healthy workplace. “That’s where the root of all evil is,” she says. Members have to forget about whatever is going on at their jobs and concentrate on working with other members to create a safer workplace. “If you are someone’s supervisor, you have to forget that at the door,” she says.

It’s a bad sign if you walk into a committee meeting and management is sitting on one side of the table with employees on the other, she says. The two groups have to work collaboratively to ensure the health and safety of workers.

Another mistake is to make the organization’s health and safety professional the management committee co-chair. The health and safety person should be at all meetings and play an integral role in the committee’s affairs but he should be there only as an impartial resource for the both sides to use.

From an employee perspective, one of the more common problems is that management doesn’t respond to committee concerns or else they say they will do something and it doesn’t get done, says Cathy Walker, health and safety director for the Canadian Auto Workers.

Health and safety committees should be given decision-making powers as they are in some northern European countries. If the committee sits down and reaches an agreement for a course of action it needs to be binding, she says.

In some cases, management doesn’t respond to committee concerns the way they should, says Frechette. But often it’s because the committee hasn’t done what it’s supposed to do.

The employee members express their concern to the management representatives and think they’ve made a recommendation. “They (the management members) say we’ll see about it and get back to you and they don’t. But legally that’s not a recommendation, that’s a discussion.”

It’s a symptom of a larger problem, says Frechette. Too often committee members end up on the committee totally unprepared. They don’t know what they are supposed to do or how the committee is supposed to function. All members need to understand what their role is, what the legislation requires and expects of them and how the committee can function best, she says.

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