A new tool is available to help people who sit on joint health and safety committees (JHSCs) assess the strengths and weaknesses of their committee—and generate discussions on what areas of their committee need improvement.
This free tool, a 21-item questionnaire, is one of the outcomes of a research project on the form and function of JHSCs in Ontario’s health-care sector, led by Dr. Kathryn Nichol of the Centre for Research Expertise on Occupational Disease (CREOD). Available on the CREOD website, the tool assesses a broad range of committee activities: Are members approachable? How well does the JHSC communicate health and safety information to the staff? Does the committee participate in critical accident and injury investigations? Do committee members receive adequate training?
The questionnaire takes members between 30 to 45 minutes to go through, making a JHSC meeting an ideal occasion to complete it, said CREOD Director Dr. Linn Holness, a member of the research team. Also on the research team was Institute for Work & Health (IWH) Scientist Dr. Lynda Robson.
Although this tool was developed for the health-care sector, we feel that it could have broad application across all Canadian workplaces, says Robson.
Holness recently shared the research leading up to this tool at an IWH plenary. That plenary is now available as a slidecast.
Limited research on health-care JHSCs
Even though JHSCs have been required by law for 30 years in Ontario for workplaces with 20 or more employees, little research has been done on whether and how they help improve occupational health and safety (OHS) in the health-care sector.
What prompted this work on the effectiveness of joint health and safety committees in health care was the finding by Justice Archie Campbell that hospital JHSCs were sidelined during SARS, says Nichol, referring to a review commissioned to look into the handling of the 2003 outbreak.
As well, there was a lack of studies on this topic in the health-care sector. And given that health-care workers experience significant work-related illness and injury rates, our team at CREOD saw a need for a better understanding of JHSCs in health-care organizations.
In the first phase of the project involving a survey of committee co-chairs, the research team found some confirmation that JHSCs were not used to their full potential. While a high number of JHSCs complied with legislative requirements (such as holding regular meetings, posting meeting minutes, and so on), respondents reported a lack of training for committee members beyond certification training, and a lack of status and visibility across the organization.
In the second phase of the project, interviews and focus groups with individuals inside hospitals and with external stakeholders (e.g. Ministry of Labour and union representatives) helped identify factors that hinder or facilitate committee effectiveness. Based on these findings, the team developed a 21-item questionnaire on JHSC effectiveness. After making sure it was easy to understand, the team tested the questionnaire on five hospital JHSCs. The 42 participants were asked to do the questionnaire individually first, then work with their respective groups to arrive at consensus scores, then complete it individually once more. The research team watched the discussion, taking note on feasibility issues such as the length of time to complete it and to come to consensus on the questions.
Questionnaire helps start conversation
The purpose of the tool is to provide feedback on JHSC processes and outcomes, to lead to the development of an action plan, to enhance communication and consensus within the committee and promote discussion and reflection on objectives and activities of a ‘gold standard’ JHSC, says Nichol.
Some questions were easily answered by participants; others took some mulling over before the committees could score themselves. Sometimes members gave different scores before and after talking over the questions as a group, and when that happened, the scores typically went down.
People had made assumptions that things were working, and then when they talked about them, they discovered that things were not working as well, said Holness.
Using the tool helped members develop a shared understanding of the effectiveness of the committee, Holness said. It also helped them set priorities for improving committee function. The team is now testing the tool in sectors outside health care. It’s also developing an electronic version with added functionality (e.g. links to more information and automatically generated action plans). To access the JHSC self-assessment questionnaire, go to the project page on CREOD's website.