Monday, January 6, 2014

Do Joint Health and Safety Committees make a difference?

A learner in a class discussion I was moderating asked a simple question about Joint Health and Safety Committees:  do they make a difference?

A recent  systematic review summarized the best evidence to date this way:

It can be concluded that there is consensus in the research literature on the value of effective Joint (worker‐employer) Health and Safety Committees (JHSCs). 

Note two important words in that conclusion: “effective” and “joint”. 

I have seen firms argue that they have a health and safety committee because they put health and safety on staff-meeting agendas or ask if there are any health and safety issues after a regular safety meeting.   These are not safety committees.  I have also been told by a firm’s safety officer that their safety committee is joint but all the decisions are actually made when the department heads sit down at their operational meetings.
Real JHSCs are joint, with representation from workers and management.  How many members do you need?  Some jurisdictions spell that out with prescribed numbers of representatives, typically equal numbers of management and labour (often with representatives from each union at a common worksite).   Real JHSCs have empowered representative members with the knowledge, training, and access to information they need to carry out their responsibilities.   

Most jurisdictions mandate the existence of JHSC although the name of the committee, duties of members and provisions for training members may vary.  Joint Health and Safety Committee is the official title in BC, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Yukon.  Alberta,   Northwest Territories, and Nunavut use  Joint Work Site Health and Safety Committee.   Nova Scotia and PEI call them Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committees.   These are the most common variations in committee names.  The names are important if you are trying to access data about requirements or benchmark performance across jurisdictions. 

All Canadian jurisdictions mandate the existence of JHSCs to some degree.  All jurisdictions define the conditions that require JHSCs creation; Alberta is alone in mandating specific work sites to have Joint Work Site Health and Safety Committees by Ministerial Order.  Currently, about two dozen (mostly very large) firms are designated by the Minister.  In reality, however, most medium to large firms voluntarily establish JHSCs because that’s accepted best practices in most industries.

Mandating the existence of a JSHC is not the same as mandating its effectiveness.   A focus on reducing injury rate and days lost may be goals the JSHC can contribute to but measuring effectiveness requires acceptance of a logic mode.  For JSHCs, that model is simply this:  The potential active and passive pathways through which workplace hazards can harm workers can be predicted, detected,  identified and interrupted by appropriate actions, safeguards and defenses.  Leading indicators such as frequency of risk identification (near miss reports, for example), percentage of staff members who access and read JHSC minutes (easy to track on an intranet),  and percentage of JHSC action items completed are a few measures JHSCs have used to gauge their own effectiveness. 

The minutes of a JHSC can be an important means of hazard identification, risk mitigation, and even cultural change.  Only WorkSafe New Brunswick requires committee minutes be submitted to them.  In years gone by, the idea of thousands of committee minutes arriving in a mailroom would dissuade most policy makers from making submission a routine requirement.  In an age where electronic systems are capable of not only receiving and storing large but also reading and validating massive volumes of data, that objection is fading fast; at the same time,  the advantages of electronic submission and analysis of JHSC minutes are growing  Such a data repository could be the next big asset in prevention.   In the meantime, a mandate for submission of committee minutes may provide an impetus to improving their effectiveness. 

So, JHSCs exist or are required to exist in most workplaces and the literature confirms that effective JSHCs are valuable.  As a worker, employer, or JSHC member why not make “improving the effectiveness of our joint health and safety committee” a new year’s resolution?  The evidence suggests having an effective JSHC can and will make a difference.  

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