Safety and the Supervisor: Tips for Safety Success

In the business of safety, supervision involvement in the safety function is always a critical topic of discussion. In many ways, effective safety leadership is a critical skill that any current or would-be supervisor must master. A team's supervisor, the most vital and critical link to safety on the job, can play a critical role in driving safety success among his/her team or, worse, can indirectly contribute to eroding the confidence of team members in the safety process overall when misalignment between safety expectations/goals and operational/production occur.

An effective supervisor can make a safety professional's job extremely easy or incredibly hard, all based how they are perceived by the team members they direct when it comes to safety related issues. Senior leadership and safety professionals rely on supervisors to provide a consistent, knowledgeable and actionable message of safety in the field. After all, what is our goal? Quicker production? Getting the job done? Being right? Getting team members back to work because they are just trying to waste time? If these are your goals as a supervisor, then there is a much broader discussion that needs to happen! If these are not your goals and your goals are aligned with management in assuring that your top priority is the preservation of life and property, then you've come to the right place. This article is intended to provide advice and guidance for you the supervisor in becoming an effective ambassador for safety from the perspective of a safety professional in the field.

1. Do what you say you will do.
The question of whether or not you are committed to safety as a supervisor is not measured by what you say; it is measured by what you do. If your people perceive you to be a person of all words and no action, then they are less likely to believe that you are committed to safety and that two you are an unreliable ally in ensuring safety on the job. When personnel bring to you a concern or issue, the expectation is that you will act on it quickly: Not dismiss it, not ignore it or not immediately invalidate it. Having been involved in situations where the supervisor was perceived to have no interest in addressing a situation, many people have told me it was not so much a question of how unsafe the situation was, but that the supervisor "didn't care" or "brushed it off." Not every situation requires a definitive corrective action each time a situation is brought up. Some situations require use of skills that will be outlined shortly, but the first step for you as a supervisor to gain team members trust and respect in these situations is when an issue is presented and you commit to determine a resolution, follow through. Act quickly and do what you say you will do.

2. Listen.
Some would argue that this is the most vital skill to a supervisor when it comes to any kind of success, let alone safety success, but if you are committed to skill #1, then you must commit to that first and then listen so you know what you are committing to achieve. Listening is an emphasized skill at multiple levels and many of us believe we know how to listen, but do we? Here's a situation, a team member walks into your office and has a safety issue he or she wants to discuss. You acknowledge the concern, ask her to sit down and present her concern. She begins and as she does so, you continue to complete the report you were working on or you take a call for a status update on that job you've been working and is critical to production. Are you listening?  You are hearing, not listening. Listening requires active engagement.

When an issue is brought to me as a professional or I am engaged when I am out on the production floor, giving my full attention to the concern is of the upmost importance, which means resisting the temptation to check your phone or grab the production manager as he is walking by because you have a question to ask him. This allows me, and will allow you, the opportunity to ask questions and fully understand the concern, helping to formulate a solution or plan of attack to address the situation. Given the demands of the work environment, time is precious and we have to make a conscious choice in how we will manage that time, but when it comes to safety and your team members' concerns, you can't simply hear, you have to listen. 

3. Get out and look.
Being labeled a "desk jockey" does not do you and your team members any good when it comes to safety. It especially adds no value when a concern brought to your desk can be seen and possibly be addressed immediately by you and the person(s) bringing the issue forward. I will admit, with the amount of desk work that is placed on many supervisors, it can be difficult if not impossible most days to even think about spending time in the field, but I assure you, when you do your team members will notice. As a safety professional, it is important for me to spend time in the field and see the issues first-hand.

Striving to spend at least four or more hours in the field in a given shift is, I have found, is optimal. It allows me to get to know team members on a personal level and when concerns are brought forward and gives me the opportunity to review the issue in real time and provide guidance or recommendation. It also helps bring out concerns that personnel may be unwilling to come to your office to discuss. There are many times where just walking through the shop brings out any number of safety issues or concerns from personnel. It also allows opportunity to open dialogue with team members on things that you see or could provide guidance about. In addition to making spending time in the field a priority, you must also be flexible enough to enter the field whenever you are needed, as well. To truly understand the situation presented, you must visualize!   

4. Empathize.
We have all been in the situation of bringing a concern or issue we think could be touchy to our supervisors.  The situation does not event have to be safety related. It is difficult for team members to bring these situations forward, especially if there is a perceived negative consequence to the issue they are bringing up.  Put yourself in their shoes: How would you feel if you were the one bringing this issue to you? Would you want your supervisor to immediately dismiss the issue or concern or would you want to believe that they really don't care about what you are bringing forward. Understand that, most likely, the individual bringing you the issue is anxious and really wants to know that you are willing to listen. If you respond poorly, then team members will shut off and go around you for resolution, which can have a very isolating effect to a supervisor.

5. Communicate.
Communication is defined as "the act of conveying intended meaning to another entity through the use of mutually understood signs and semiotic rules. The basic steps of communication are the forming of communicative intent, message composition, message encoding and transmission of signal, reception of signal, message decoding, and finally interpretation of the message by the recipient." Communication involves both verbal and non-verbal cues. Body language can say more to a team member than anything you say. If you are presented with a situation, and your immediate reaction is to "roll your eyes" or "heavily sigh," your team understand the message that was just sent.

Shortness in voice, sharpness in tone, or an expression of agitation in your verbal communication can be indicators of indifference or unwillingness to participate in a conversation. In most situations, this person is bringing this to you because he feels it is important. He would prefer not to even have to bring this to you at all. This was not part of his plan for today. Making sure you present a tone of openness in body language and tone when communicating can help make sure you get the whole story and can win you an ally in ensuring more issues are brought forward. Personnel will also be more willing to work with you when resolution of an issue is not immediate.

It is also important for you as a supervisor to communicate back to your team members on the status of an issue. Don't just take the issue and run. Update your personnel periodically until the situation is resolved. I assure you, having observed a large number of supervisor/team member interactions in the field, team members appreciate this more than actual resolution to a safety concern in most situations.

6. Give timely feedback.
The ability to provide timely and effective feedback is a vital skill that a supervisor must possess to be successful. You are expected to lead when times get rough. Maintaining control and the ability to give effective and constructive feedback in every situation is key. Your team members are skilled craftsmen that take pride in their work and understand what needs to be done, but every now and then, the best among them can benefit from good, effective, and constructive feedback.

Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger identify in their book "FYI For Your Improvement: A Guide for Development and Coaching" that people need continuous feedback to grow. Effective feedback involves being straight with your team members. Feedback must also be accurate and honest. It must be delivered in real time and should be given as much time as you have time to provide it. Feedback should be process oriented as much as possible. This helps adjust what team members are doing along the way allowing team members to better achieve a goal. It also shows team members that what they are doing is important and that your goal is to help, not play "gotcha."

Our goal with feedback is not to catch someone doing something wrong, it is to identify possible situations that could contribute to an accident or safety event and provide feedback that will help change the outcome of the situation for the better. Both positive and negative feedback should be given as soon as possible. It is recommended that feedback always start with positive feedback with movement toward negative feedback to help open a dialogue between you and the person receiving the feedback. In my experience, immediate feedback or feedback over time for issues that cannot be easily resolved is always appreciated.

7. Be humble.
No one knows everything. Even the best among us cannot read every book, every manual, or piece of literature or know every process. While it is your obligation to seek this knowledge to improve your skills, it is not a sign of weakness to admit that you don't know or that you don't have the answer. People respect when a person knows his or her limitations; they do not respect when they know that you are making up an answer to save face, show that you know the answer when you don't, or provide an answer to suppress conversation. If you don't know, you don't know: That's the bottom line. Show humility and admit that you don't know but will do everything you can to find out the answer.

Draw on your team members themselves. Their experiences vary and they can provide a wealth of information that will benefit you and your team. Get them involved and allow them to speak up. Engage your team members in two way dialogue and keep these lines open. A person who can admit to flaws but also be willing to learn from them and provide answers is a very reliable safety advocate. 

Safety is critical to our overall success in any workplace. It is a deeply held value from management on down.  Success in safety depends on effective safety leadership from the person who can help affect safety the most, the supervisor. Providing skills to supervisors that can help achieve effectiveness in the promotion of safety is critical to sustained safety success. Supervisors are that critical link in safety success or failure. Without safety success, nothing else matters.

Matthew Phillips ([email protected]) is currently the Senior Safety Specialist for Dominion Resources Chesterfield & Bellemeade Power Stations in Richmond, Va. He has 15+ years experience in the safety management and emergency services field and is a current officer of the Colonial Virginia ASSE chapter in Richmond. He received his MS degree in safety management from West Virginia University.

1. Lombardo, Michael M, and Eichinger, Robert W. FYI For Your Improvement A Guide to Development and Coaching, Lominger International, 1996-2009. Print.

Posted on Nov 10, 2016