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An active Health and Safety Committee is critical for member protection

By KATE MOSTACCIO

Every worksite should have a robust, proactive Health and Safety Committee to advocate for policies and procedures that protect members, as well as to tackle member concerns and hazardous conditions at the workplace.

“One of the basic functions of a Health and Safety Committee is discussing policies and procedures, anything from your workplace violence program to your emergency action plans,” said PEF Health and Safety Specialist Paige Engelhardt.

Committees can consider and revise existing policies and procedures or can implement new ones; create and maintain an interest in health and safety at the worksite; and identify and analyze workplace hazards and recommend solutions to management, she said.

“Agenda items are usually hazards that have been identified. Something that could cause somebody to get sick or hurt,” Engelhardt said. “When we raise them, we discuss solutions and how we would like to see them resolved.”

Rebooting or starting a committee

Time to Jumpstart Your Health & Safety Committee. Presenters: Shawn Bobb and Paige Engelhardt

Member involvement on committees is a good way to keep members engaged and demonstrate the value of the union.
“When you get your members involved, they start to see themselves as the union,” Engelhardt said. “The union starts to become part of them and an invested interest for them. We want to bring them into the union and educate them on what it means to be in the union. Bringing them in and getting them involved also creates a more proactive union.”
Everyone working together can strategize, set goals and take collective action to solve problems.

“Overall, it’s a benefit to have more people on a project than less,” Engelhardt said.
When recruiting rank-and-file members for committee work, it is important to make sure those volunteers understand the goals and the mission of the committee and the union.

“Make sure that information is clear and concise so they understand what they are being asked to do,” she said. “They must also believe in the purpose of the mission. Communication is key to all of this.”

Sharing committee triumphs is an important way to both emphasize the value of the union and garner interest in a committee’s work.

“You should publicize your successes,” Engelhardt said. “If you have a health and safety agenda item and you succeed at getting it resolved, you want to advertise that. You want to make sure members know how the union helped them in the workplace.”
At a workshop during PEF’s 42nd Annual Convention, health and safety staff educated delegates on ways to bring in and retain new committee members, including asking them to participate face-to-face (or virtually during COVID); asking them to do a particular job when they agree to participate; and letting them choose a job that suits their interests and skills.

“When you sign them up, ask them to do a specific job,” Engelhardt said. “Give them something that has a start and a finish, so they can feel like they’ve accomplished something and played a role in their union.” Once you have them engaged, give them opportunities for individual empowerment, provide training, and thank them for their efforts, she added.

The position of committee co-chair is an important one. Co-chairs are responsible for arranging times and dates of meetings; the format of meetings; notification of all members; requesting information for the agenda and gathering agenda items; reviewing minutes; coordinating reports; facilitating meetings to keep the agenda moving; and any necessary follow-up on action items between meetings.
Management and any unions represented on the committee will have their own co-chair.

Rank-and-file members must attend all meetings and participate in taking notes or minutes; complete assigned action items; help set goals and objectives; participate in on-site or virtual hazard inspections; and promote health and safety in the workplace.

Helpful tips, tools

There are a number of resources available to committees.

Article 18 of the PS&T Contract covers information on committee meeting requirements and hierarchy. The PEF Health and Safety Department offers workshops, factsheets and technical assistance to committees and can answer questions about myriad workplace safety and health issues.

In addition to PEF tools, there is the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau (PESH) and allies and coalitions across the state, such as the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), the Northeast New York Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (NENYCOSH) and the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health (WNYCOSH). Statewide committees can also assist local committees.

To identify hazardous conditions, committees can request and review injury and illness logs; view worker’s compensation data; and review incident reports.

“These logs list illnesses or injuries staff or members have experienced in the workplace,” said PEF Occupational Health and Safety Specialist Shawn Bobb. “To get a clearer picture of the types of injuries and causes, you can review incident reports for more detailed information on how injuries or incidents occur.”

Bobb said there might be agency pushback releasing the injury and illness logs but there is no protected data listed and employee representatives have a right to access the logs under PESH/OSHA regulations.

Use of site assessments, either in person or virtually, is a vital tool for committees.

“When you’re in the workplace, a site visit serves a number of purposes,” Bobb said. “Obviously, you want to identify hazards in the workplace, but it also shows your members that the union is involved and active in the workplace and is responding to their concerns or, even more so, being proactive in identifying concerns.”

Committee members can discuss issues and concerns at union and staff meetings to gather agenda items.

“You want to identify from your members their concerns,” Bobb said. “Listen to what your members are saying so that we can go back to the committee and follow up on those issues. We want everyone to understand it is important to talk to your members to gather information and to let them know the union is concerned about their issues, that we’re listening and that we’re looking out for their health and safety.”

Prepping arguments and recommended solutions can help get satisfactory results.

“Prepare a financial case,” Bobb said. Reminding the agency of the worker’s compensation costs, lost time and overtime costs from injured or ill workers can be persuasive, he said.

Bobb said sometimes there are conflicting personalities on a committee – getting to know one another, seeing things from the other person’s perspective, listening and learning, and recognizing the external pressures each team or individual is facing can help alleviate those conflicts.

“When you are negotiating, you may not get everything you’re asking for,” Bobb said. “Remember, solutions may not always have equal results for both parties but may still be good for both. Compromise on small issues and build trust on them. Examine your actions for fairness.”

Committees should be proactive.

“The idea is to be preventative,” Bobb said. “We don’t want to react. We don’t want members to be injured first before we do something. The idea of health and safety is to eliminate the hazard before our members are injured or made ill. Prevention is the key word.

“Our goal as union activists is that our members come home in the same condition that they got to work,” Bobb said. “When you get home from work there should be no condition that you’re experiencing that a good night’s rest, a good meal, will not allow you to get back to work recuperated in the morning. That’s the overall objective for us – to make sure we can enjoy the fruits of our labor.”

Next steps

Rebooting or starting a Health and Safety Committee can protect you in the workplace and is a vital tool during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you already have a health and safety committee but have not met in a while, work on bringing your committee members together and request a meeting from management. For those worksites that do not have a health and safety committee, work with your Division and local leadership to start one up.

For information or assistance, contact PEF’s Health and Safety Department at gro.f1621001467ep@yt1621001467efasd1621001467nahtl1621001467aeh1621001467.