The Supervisor

The Supervisor's Crucial Role in Safety Performance

Are your frontline leaders and shift supervisors helping or hindering your workplace safety efforts?

There’s an unofficial rule of safety management that goes like this: a safety program will only be as strong as the least-effective shift supervisor. Every rule has its exceptions, but it’s exceedingly difficult to achieve sustained safety success in a workplace where supervisors and other leaders lack the skills and knowledge to support the company’s safety efforts.

Supervisors may not set an organization’s direction but they’re the ones who are ultimately responsible for translating a company’s policies and intentions into action. Even when a new safety initiative is driven by the safety officer, at most workplaces it’s up to team leaders to oversee it on a daily basis. To put it simply, supervisors are where the rubber meets the road.

If you’re skeptical of the impact that supervisors have on safety, try this quick thought experiment.

The most commonly cited workplace safety challenges include recurring injuries, a lack of worker engagement and buy-in, employees taking shortcuts or not following rules, a lack of personal accountability for safety, and competing organizational priorities. Pick any one of these issues and consider how the problem’s impact would change if every supervisor in the workplace had strong communication skills, understood advanced safety concepts like human factors, and had experience with empowering their team to improve on the issue.

It’s not hard to imagine that safety-oriented supervisors would result in employees taking fewer shortcuts and more personal accountability for their own safety. Workers would feel more engaged and more capable of focusing on production without casting safety by the wayside. And, essentially, supervisors could be an effective liaison between the safety manager and workers in an effort to root out repeated injuries.

Now picture the opposite: a set of supervisors who lack the ability to have difficult safety conversations with workers, who aren’t able to spot safety issues (let alone anticipate them before they occur), and who are unpracticed in leading with a safety-first mindset. You don’t need me to tell you what will happen in this scenario to almost every single type of safety outcome, from the number of near-miss reports to the frequency and severity of injuries.

Supervisors aren’t magicians, of course. They’re only one of many factors that determine a workplace’s overall degree of safety success. The best team of supervisors in the world can’t overcome a flimsy organizational safety program. But the inverse is also true—it’s hard to see how an otherwise strong safety system can succeed at the highest level with frontline leaders who simply don’t ‘get’ safety. In effect, supervisors represent an invisible ceiling on safety outcomes.

Once we acknowledge supervisors’ importance to workplace safety, big questions arise. Which specific traits determine a supervisor’s impact on safety? And how can safety managers and senior leaders foster the right mix of supervisory skills and knowledge to improve safety results?

SafeStart has conducted extensive research into the essential components for supervisors to influence worker’s safety attitudes and actions, and we’ve discovered that, across almost every industry, geographic region and size of company, there are six main qualities that can make or break a supervisor’s ability to move the needle on safety outcomes.

Notably, these qualities are all variable—everyone naturally possesses them to differing degrees, can improve them through teaching and practice, and can lose them through lack of use. This means that business leaders who want to better leverage supervisors’ impact on safety should take steps to instill or improve these six traits in supervisors through training mentorship.

While a detailed discussion of all six safety-influencing competencies is too much to get into here, I’d like to take a closer look at three of them: positive communication, hazard identification, and the ability to make the most of data and reporting. Each of these seems straightforward, but as with any safety issue, there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye.

Positive Communication

The ability to effectively communicate is a tremendously valuable skillset for supervisors to have. It’s also exceedingly rare—which is unfortunate because supervisors should be talking about safety on a daily basis. Safety-related communications come in many shapes and sizes, from the standard safety huddle to having difficult one-on-one conversations with a worker about a specific safety concern.

There are several notable aspects of supervisor-to-worker safety communication worth exploring. The first is the tone. There’s a dramatic difference in outcomes when conversations are conducted in a positive tone, rather than with a blame-first approach. This is true even for discussions about potentially dangerous behaviors. Difficult conversations can, and should be, direct without being negative. In many cases, the tone of a conversation will determine whether the supervisor will alienate a worker or get them to change their conduct.

Inclusivity and engagement are also important. With coaching and practice, supervisors can learn to use storytelling and other techniques to get workers on side with specific safety measures. They can also become adept at using practical examples to help their team develop a stronger sense of the safety issues––from rules and regulations to hazards and human factors—they might have to contend with throughout the workday.

Hazard Identification

Every workplace contains a set of hazards that are easy to spot—moving vehicles, giant machinery, working at extremely high elevations. Other hazards, like those with slip and trip potential, seem to fly under workers’ radars. And then there are certain safety concerns that can go completely unnoticed despite their ability to increase the risk of an incident, such as human factors like distraction and fatigue.

Enter supervisors. Frontline leaders are in an ideal position to help workers recognize the hazards that are present in the workplace and, in doing so, reduce their risk of coming into contact with them. Supervisors can also encourage employees to recognize human factors in order to mitigate their effects on risk. And because the degree of risk posed by hazards and human factors can fluctuate in real time, supervisors are the most constant presence on the front lines and thus are ideally positioned to point out how various sources of danger shift throughout the workday.

Of course, they can only do all that if they understand which hazards to look out for and have practiced actually spotting various hazards. In reality, relatively few supervisors have the ability to consistently recognize less obvious hazards, and it’s rare for a frontline leader to naturally understand the ins and outs of human factors. Rarer still is the supervisor who is able to both identify hard-to-notice safety issues and then effectively communicate them to their team. This is where an effective mentor or training program can help supervisors connect the dots between hazard recognition and communication—while also honing their ability to execute on those skills.

Leverage Data and Reporting

Businesses run on data. In many ways, so does safety. Once best practices have been codified and a safety management system is up and running, how that system is functioning and what changes need to be made is based on shifting workplace realities. And that means a relatively high volume of good-quality information needs to be collected about safety operations.

Even though safety data is analyzed at a management level, it’s often gathered on the shop floor. A simple set of questions quickly illustrates just how effective a workplace is at collecting safety data. How willing are employees to report near misses? How detailed and accurate is each report? Are there barriers in the near-miss reporting structure? Are workers encouraged to report incidents? Do they receive follow-up communication based on reports?

Supervisors are located in the center of each of these questions. They can facilitate a robust reporting structure or prove to be a roadblock to reporting. They can thank workers for each report or assign blame for incidents, which will increase or decrease the long-term volume of reports, respectively. They can influence employees’ overall attitudes towards reporting. All of which is to say, frontline supervisors have a dramatic effect on the safety data that is gathered and, in turn, the larger decisions that are made at the managerial level based on that data.

One last point about supervisors’ impact on safety—if even one of the six important competencies is underdeveloped it can spell disaster. It doesn’t matter how great supervisors are identifying hazards or how well they understand their role in facilitating near-miss reports if they lack the communication skills to actually get it done.

When it comes to evaluating the extent to which your frontline leaders and shift supervisors are helping (or hindering) your workplace safety efforts, think about both their individual skills and abilities, as well as how they connect and work together. If you’re unpleasantly surprised by what you find, remember that supervisory safety skills can be improved—but supervisors are unlikely to spontaneously decide to master these specific quantities. And that means it’s up to you to get the ball rolling. 

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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