Supervisors can have a dramatic impact on a workplace’s overall level of productivity—and on workplace safety too. But the degree to which shift supervisors and frontline managers influence safety depends on whether they possess some key skills and knowledge.
There are three vital areas that supervisors need to master in order to positively affect safety outcomes in the workers they oversee. And if they lack the necessary skills and knowledge, they may inadvertently put people at a greater risk of injury.
If you want to make sure your supervisors are rowing in the same direction as the rest of your safety program, think about whether they have the skills to spot hazards and human factors, and then communicate them to workers. And if they don’t, then consider whether your organization is willing to take the steps to help supervisors and managers improve in these areas.
Safety professionals have years of experience in identifying hazards. In many cases, they’re trained to notice hazards that are easy to overlook. The same can’t be said for the vast majority of shift supervisors and frontline leaders. Some hazards may be so obvious as to be unmissable, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to get complacent about seemingly obvious hazards like electricity, working at heights or driving.
It’s important to educate supervisors on common hazards in the workplace so that they can spot them in real time. Keep in mind that this education can be a two-way street—as an organization’s eyes are on the ground, supervisors may be aware of hazards that have developed over time, or ways that work is done that can increase the risk of someone suffering an injury. Safety professionals should share their knowledge with supervisors, and help them practice recognizing hazards as they go about their day—and they should also respect the firsthand experience and unique perspectives that shift supervisors can offer.
Human factors awareness
People get hurt when they come into contact with hazards. But there are all sorts of factors that can affect the likelihood of that happening. A range of human factors, from fatigue and distraction to illness and confusion, can alter how someone thinks and acts and make them more (or less) likely to become entangled with hazards.
While these physical and mental states aren’t hazards in and of themselves, they are major contributors to injury. And that means that frontline leaders need to be able to spot human factors in the workers they supervisors—ideally, they should also be equipped with the skills and knowledge to intervene and mitigate risk.
Most people don’t have a robust understanding of human factors, the best way to teach your supervisors about human factors is through formal training that can help them connect all the pieces while building up their skills, confidence and experience. That way, supervisors and managers will be able to effectively monitor workers throughout the day and coach them to reduce their chances of injury.
Knowledge is powerful but, as a group of real American heroes reminds us, knowing is only half the battle. When it comes to supervisors, the other half of the battle is the ability to lead workers in getting the job done—while dealing with the risk posed by human factors and safety hazards. And communication is the single most important tool that supervisors need to make that happen.
Unfortunately, for most supervisors the biggest gap in skills is with communication. Organizations tend to promote line workers to supervisors based on their technical abilities and tenure, without taking a hard look at the skillset they’ll need to succeed in their new role. When this happens, important abilities like communication need to be backfilled through training and coaching.
By its very nature, communications training can look a little different for every organization. Notably, it should take into account the number of supervisors and managers that need training, the size of skills gap, and the existing workplace culture. With that said, for most companies the general goals of the training will be the same—improving supervisors’ ability to talk to workers about safety and, hopefully, positively motivate them to stay safer throughout their shift.
Supervisors are often a point of frustration for the company’s leadership team. Too often, they don’t have the capability to execute at the level that senior managers would prefer. But a gap in supervisory skills is an opportunity as well as a challenge. Essential supervisory skills like communication, hazard awareness and human factors awareness can be provided through proven training methods. And if done properly, it will improve the workplace in all sorts of ways, from production to culture and, most importantly, worker safety.
If you’ve identified that your supervisors would benefit from better interpersonal skills and situational awareness, consider training them on those skills through a safety lens. Not only can a safety-first approach boost engagement and buy-in, but your supervisors are more likely to learn the communication skills that are most transferable to all aspects of their job. And when that happens, fewer people get hurt and the company makes more money—which is something everyone can see the benefit in.