Safety Super Vision

Many supervisors are being asked to do much more. It's not just line workers who've been trimmed to the bone.

Yes, I've both heard it and said it many times. And arguably most agree: Front Line Supervisors (FLS) play an important role in a company's overall Safety performance and culture. After all, Supervisors lead at the level at which employees work, creating products and delivering services. FLS are ostensibly on hand to see what's really going on (after all, "super-vision" = big view, from an older word, "over-seer," meaning the same); they, more so than other organizational leaders, can potentially influence daily actions and reinforce desired skills. Most important, they are the ongoing presence of company management to those doing the line work.

Over the past decade, many CEOs, Executives, and Managers have taken a greater lead in vociferously and consistently advocating for Safety. So if Senior Leaders are out there on the Safety Front but workers, after being told and trained, still don't "think before they act" or continue to "engage in careless acts," where other to apportion responsibility than FLS?

Sure, Supervisors' actions and inactions both send messages and help set the Safety tone. But they aren't "mostly responsible." There's a problem with overdoing jumping on the Supervisors-are-the-key bandwagon. Ironically, the same people who exhort "Personal Responsibility" (closely followed by threats of "We're going to hold them accountable!") are often looking at Organizational Safety too narrowly. This especially seems to occur when trailing indicators (lost time injury rate? recordables? etc.) either plateau or peak.

When results fall below expectations, many Senior Execs and Safety Professionals admit to being perplexed, disappointed, irritated, or frustrated. It's easy for some to point to FLS as not holding up their end. Clearly, many don’t do a great job of leading Safety. Then again, in many companies, people aren't necessarily promoted to Supervisor because of inherent leadership skills or, when they attain this position, they're often treading furiously in a sink-or-swim environment (part of organizational culture and again not the "fault" of the Supervisor.) It seems to me managers have most responsibility for these actions taken.

Now mix in the ongoing trend of Supervisors being asked to account for an increasing number of people who directly report to them--some have expanded from 8-10 to up to 50! It's not realistic for anyone to actually "oversee" that many; too much just goes unnoticed. To compound this, some supervisors now have responsibility for areas that are physically separated. Many others are being asked to do much more in addition; it's not just line workers who've been trimmed to the bone. Given these, common refrains I hear from Front Line Supervisors include: "I'm already trying to do more than anyone can and now you're also asking me to supervise Safety?" and "Isn't that the job of our Safety person?"

To some degree, that's so. But Safety professionals (or even those with collateral duty, meaning they have other jobs to do in addition to Safety) typically don't actually supervise anyone and can't hire, fire, promote, or do performance appraisals. In fact, most Safety pros' real potential powers come from advising and persuading. And most have many more than even 50 to watch with concern, often who are dispersed. So here again it falls to line leaders to make Safety actually happen during daily work.

No question, FLS are important. But when things don't work according to best plans, it's easy to for less-effective leaders to saddle First Line Supervisors with too heavy an expectational load. In contrast, when trailing Safety indicators dip, best Executives, Managers, and Safety Professionals look at their own part first. It sets up Supervisors to fail to just expect them to somehow shore up Safety without any high-level skills transfer or only running large groups through a quick training program without needed ongoing support and reinforcement--and then, to make it a double whammy, blaming them for low performance. In fact, I know of some companies that now attach and then broadcast the Supervisor's name alongside reports of any injury. This implies that this accident is on the Supervisor's head; I noticed that they don't also include the names of the Plant Manager, Safety professional, Division Manage, or even that of the employee who got hurt.

Telling others what to do or just writing directives or policies and procedures is limited. Giving short shrift to Safety by "delegating it down" from the top will only take you so far. I've seen this time and again. Rather, leaders should think of supporting, not dunning, those whom you want to in turn support them. Also, they should provide training that's more than just aphorisms, generalizations, and directives; it has to apply to the makeup of their specific workforce (cultures? age? gender? tasks? and more). Supervisory Safety training has to be delivered in easily digestible segments with time between provided for participants to actually practice specific skills. Position, then tie in, Safety supervision as a subset of overall supervision; for example, motivate Safe actions with the same approach as with eliciting highly productive performance.

Prepare FLS with skills needed--not just the "will"/pressure--to act as facilitators and mentors, rather than as enforcers. Move away from rule-based toward internalized Safety. Build Safety into all line operations in the same way as Quality--into everything from the beginning, rather than as a catch-it-after-the-fact screening. Show FLS how Safety actually enhances their work and helps raise efficiency, productivity, and engagement (and if your approach to Safety doesn't do that, change it before you expect others to just add on to an already full plate).

Above all, widen and sharpen your own Safety vision before you expect others to supersize theirs.

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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