SHE committees help us to comply with the legal requirements under the OHS Act and the Mine Health and Safety Act, as well as with compliance with the requirements of OHSAS 18001, where there is a clear requirement for worker consultation and participation.
The idea of worker participation is not a new one, and the benefits have proven invaluable. One that stands out for me is the Green Area system that originated in Japan. During short daily meetings (with agenda) potential and real problems in production and health and safety of workers were identified and dealt with. If necessary, communications are forwarded through the ranks to management, so that appropriate action can be taken at an appropriate level. Performance was also regularly evaluated during these meetings.
The environmental legislation and the Environmental Management Standard are not as clear on the use of environmental committees. But the requirement for internal communication is the same between the OHS standard and the EMS standard. These committees contribute to meeting the requirements of the standards. The difference is that the OHS standard specifically addresses worker consultation and participation.
My take on it is this: We have the safety committees, train them sufficiently to fulfil the same functions as far as the environmental issues of the company is concerned, and the system will perform better due to the fact that the workers take ownership of the EMS as well.
Significance? It depends on how significant management allows the participation of the SHE committees to be. I have seen companies where SHE committees are truly valued, and their inputs and contributions are regarded seriously. In some other cases, the existence of the SHE committees is pure window dressing!