Navigating the pandemic has been relatively easy for businesses like manufacturers. Operating in industries defined by machinery, electricity, hydraulics, and other occupational hazards, safety protocols were old hat to us so it didn’t take much to adapt and adopt policies to address Covid or government’s response to it.
That wasn’t the case for other employers such as offices, retailers, and restaurants. In work environments with far fewer risks, intense safety standards were never the norm. When those workplaces reopened they needed guidance from other businesses that reopened successfully (or never closed) and state government to do what was necessary to mitigate coronavirus exposure.
Picking up new behaviors, skills, and procedures didn’t end in 2020. Even though we seem to now know plenty about a virus that was still relatively unknown or misunderstood just 13 months ago, the government response to it continues to evolve and, in turn, so does the private sector response.
Take safety committees for example.
Such teams have long existed at my fellow producers and employers of larger size.
But, most small businesses, especially those that originally found difficulty navigating reopening, have never had a safety committee. It’s not as if fast food establishments, call centers, hotels, and stores really saw the need or value given that their exposures to risk were low.
That’s going to change. The State now mandates safety committees for all employers with 10 or more employees.
The new law is an outcome of the recently passed HERO Act which codified the Cuomo Administration’s Covid protocols while also enacting these committees and granting legal outlet for employees who feel threatened by employer responses to airborne diseases.
Governor Cuomo signed the Act into law on May 5th. The first part, pertaining to the creation of workplace-specific control plans, goes into effect June 4th. The safety committee portion takes effect on November 1st.
Under the law, these committees must be comprised of management and general labor, and empowered with the abilities to raise health and safety concerns, hazards, complaints, and violations to the employer to which the employer must respond; review and provide feedback for any policy put in place in the workplace as required by the HERO Act and any provision of workers’ compensation law; review the adoption of any policy in the workplace in response to any health or safety law or executive order; participate in any site visit by any governmental entity responsible for enforcing safety and health standards; review any report filed by the employer related to the health and safety; and schedule a meeting during work hours at least once a quarter.
It might seem like a massive laundry list to employers that have never hosted a safety committee. As someone who comes from the world of manufacturing, please allow me to share a handful of tips on navigating this and getting the most impact out of it – sure, you want to address the law but you also want to get the most bang for your buck and protect your team.
Make the committee multi-functional. How many should make up your committee? That’s a tough call. It depends on the environment. At my place, 1-in-every-5 participate. Your crew should be made up of people from every aspect of operations and every shift so all nuances of the operations are addressed. If you run a grocery store, for example, you should have a cashier, stocker, butcher, baker, and customer service representative involved.
Have everyone inspect the workplace. Every committeeperson should be granted time during the workday in the days prior to the meeting to fully inspect and observe not only their workspace, but also the departments of others. Their findings should help drive conversation.
Keep the lines of communications open. It’s defeating to workplace safety if suggestions, observations, and concerns are kept until the next committee meeting. If you meet quarterly, that means you could go months before a legitimate issue is addressed. Encourage attendees (and all workers) to submit issues as they become aware.
Maintain records. Committee minutes should be maintained. An action plan noting findings and parties assigned to resolution should be issued and followed-up with after every meeting.
Invite outsiders to your meetings. Outside eyes are always good. They see things that you and your committee might miss being part of your normal day-to-day. So, invite your comp carrier’s safety guru in to tour and provide training and insight to your group. Also, take advantage of the NYS Department of Labor’s on-site consultation program to do the same.
While the HERO Act’s safety committee mandate may seem like a frustration to the uninitiated, employers not used to the practice will ultimately find value in the meetings and empowerment, as other employers have through the years. This is one of those circumstances when, done properly, the effected small businesses can turn lemons into lemonade.
From the 10 May 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News