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4 Ways Frontline Supervisors Influence Workplace Safety

Frontline supervisor addresses safety within the workplace

Frontline supervisors are a notable feature on any sizeable worksite. And they have an equally notable impact on the safety of the teams they lead. Their abilities to recognize hazards, communicate various safety issues and manage human factors all have a direct link to safety outcomes. So does their ability to bring out the best (or worst) in the workers they’re responsible for?

Safety directors, site managers and others who are responsible for safety should all take a long look at whether their frontline supervisors are having a positive or negative effect on workplace safety. In particular, they should consider the following four areas.

Hazard recognition and response

Helping workers avoid coming into contact with hazards is one of the bedrock principles of EHS programs. Whenever possible, hazards must be eliminated, contained by engineering solutions, or mitigated with PPE, safety processes and a variety of other interventions.

But even with a robust health and safety management system in place, safety issues can continue to crop up on a daily basis. Ideally, supervisors are in a position to recognize hazards as they develop and then guide their team in responding to the hazard. If supervisors can’t effectively get their crew to adjust to risk fluctuations in the workplace, then they likely need additional support and potentially some supervisory skills development too. It can sound like a daunting task but it’s often a fairly straightforward proposition to invest in supervisors’ safety skills, and the benefits to your workplace make it more than worth the effort.

Communication skills

If your company’s crew leaders lack communication skills then it doesn’t matter how well they can spot hazards or how extensive their safety knowledge is. A major part of their job is transmitting information to workers clearly, fostering a positive attitude among employees even during challenging safety conversations, and clearly articulating expectations regarding safety behaviors and job performance. Beyond that, supervisors also play a massive role in determining the extent to which ambiguity and other human factors affect the workers they’re in charge of.

As you evaluate the skills of your organization’s frontline leaders, make sure you consider the extent to which supervisors could be hindering safety efforts because of their lack of communication abilities. Conversely, support frontline leaders who show strong communication skills because they can make a real difference in terms of safety outcomes and workplace culture.

Human factors management

Human factors are everywhere. The vast majority of workplaces in North America can point to at least a few incidents that occurred in the past year because of rushing, frustration, distraction, or some other physical or mental state. As safety columnist Ray Prest says in Occupational Health and Safety magazine, that’s almost definitely a sign of a much larger problem brewing:

I’ve been studying human factors for almost two decades. I’ve read countless reports, commissioned surveys, and my colleagues and I have even conducted our own primary research. One of the things I’ve learned is that human factors are like mice—there’s never just one or two. As any homeowner knows, if you see one mouse scurrying out in the open, there’s bound to be [a] whole nest of them somewhere in the walls.

Dealing with human factors requires a multi-pronged approach. You need a high-level framework to help you identify how human factors circulate through your organization and to make it easier to strategize how you’ll manage them. And you should also have eyes and ears on the ground who can spot human factors as they fluctuate throughout the workday, and who can competently report on human factors risks.

One of the most important—and rarest—set of skills that a supervisor can have is the ability to monitor, manage and mitigate human factors among small groups of workers. The good news? These skills can be developed, so if you discover that your frontline leaders lack human factors know-how then look for a training vendor who can provide a crash course in human factors management.

Other soft skills

Communication abilities and human factors management are both soft skills. Depending on how you look at it, there’s a case for hazard recognition and response being a soft skill too. But they’re hardly the only ones, as there are plenty of other safety-focused soft skills. There’s the importance of safety professionals having empathy, the need to be consistent, and the value of storytelling in safety—to name only a few of the many soft skills that can have a measurable impact on EHS outcomes.

If you have an established safety management system in place, one of the biggest gains you can make in safety outcomes is by raising the bar on the soft skills of your frontline supervisors and other leaders. The goal here is to, for example, help them become more proficient in having effective safety conversations or learning how to read workers’ attitudes so that they can positively intervene before an incident occurs.

You can learn more about seven of the most important soft skills for workplace safety performance in a new guide titled 7 Essential Soft Skills For Hard Workplace Safety Problems. It may be the quickest way to help you determine the extent to which your frontline supervisors are helping—or hindering—your safety efforts. And if some improvements are necessary, it can help point you in the right direction.

Soft Skills Guide

7 Essential Soft Soft Skills For Hard Workplace Safety Problems

You can check all the right boxes and still feel like your safety program is stalled out, and that no one seems to believe in the value of safety. That’s where soft skills come in.

Get the free guide now

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