In many organizations, frontline supervisors occupy a unique position. They work on the shop floor, which means they know what happens on a daily basis. They often have a personal connection with frontline workers. But they also have certain managerial responsibilities, and as such they play a role in the execution of higher-level company functions like production oversight and workplace safety. More than any other job position, supervisors have a foot in multiple camps.
And that makes supervisors and frontline leaders a key component of workplace safety. If your supervisors have effective safety skills then they can take your EHS results to the next level. But if they lack the basic knowledge or support then they may end up dragging down your organization’s safety performance in a number of different areas.
There are four major ways that supervisors influence safety on a daily basis. If you want to know how safety-inclined your shift leaders are, take a look at these four areas to see if supervisors are helping or hurting the company’s safety efforts.
Eyes on the ground
Safety managers are the workplace experts on safety issues. If anyone can spot hazards as they develop, recognize human factors in real time, or understand the need to communicate a vital safety concern, it’s them.
Unfortunately, every EHS professional can only be in one place at a time. To have eyes on the ground at all times, safety managers need to delegate to frontline supervisors—and those supervisors need to know what they’re looking for.
When supervisors are able to notice hazards as they develop, they can intervene to prevent an injury. With the right training, they can do the same with human factors like rushing and distraction. They can even help workers become better at spotting physical hazards and potentially dangerous human factors.
But the inverse is also true. If a frontline supervisor hasn’t been trained to notice hazards that could hurt people, or been taught that states of mind like fatigue and complacency can get people killed, then there will be a dampening effect on safety. Hazardous energy and human factors will go unrecognized, the risk of injury will slowly rise, and TRI rates may increase.
Lead by example
We’ve known for several decades that it’s important for upper management to lead by example. (In fact, at SafeStart we believe that it’s one of the essential elements of success for any major safety implementation.) And while the C-suite should demonstrate with their actions that they believe safety is a top priority, it’s just as crucial for frontline leaders to walk the walk.
It’s impossible to understate just how much supervisors set the tone for safety. If they consistently ignore safety rules, their subordinates will do the same. If they prioritize production over safety then workers will take the same attitude. After all, why should employees have to do something that their boss doesn’t do?
When supervisors lead by example, it shows workers exactly what safety looks like. From following safety regulations to keeping human factors in check, workers are more likely to adopt safe behaviors if they see their supervisors doing it first.
The voice of the organization
Employees tend to believe that their supervisors speak for the organization. Rightly or wrongly, this means that frontline leaders are the daily voice of the company. So if a supervisor yells at someone for forgetting to wear PPE, the employee’s attitude towards the entire organization will suffer as a result. On the flip side, a supervisor who understands how to communicate in a positive or proactive way—such as lauding safe actions and offering non-punitive corrections to risky behavior—can improve safety culture and employee engagement.
There are also numerous instances where supervisors are officially tasked with communicating for the entire company. Any time there is a change in procedure, from the rollout of a new safety initiative to an organizational response to a pandemic, supervisors often lead the charge. They’re also the people that workers turn to in order to ask questions, express frustrations, or offer suggestions. This underscores just how essential it is for supervisors and other frontline leaders to have strong communication skills and to be kept in the loop about organizational priorities.
Connect individual issues to a larger safety framework
Safety doesn’t happen in a vacuum and there’s no such thing as an isolated or “just this once” incident. From near misses to serious injuries and fatalities, anything that happens in the workplace is a sign of workplace culture, the risk of the current operational reality and an indication of future injury potential.
In an ideal world, individual issues are reported on and compiled in order to provide meaningful data that can be used to improve the reliability of safety procedures (and to improve productivity too).
Safety managers and senior leaders generally understand all of this, but they’re rarely present when incidents occur. And frontline workers don’t tend to recognize the broader organization impact of incidents that appear to be fluke occurrences. This means it’s up to supervisors to connect day-to-day incidents with organizational priorities and the need for data.
When this happens, safety is transformed from a collection of rules and forms into a safety framework that is constantly collecting input from operations and then making improvements to better protect workers.
The safety-minded supervisor
In many ways, supervisors and other frontline leaders are a make-or-break point for workplace safety. If supervisors have the skills, knowledge and support then they have a tremendously positive impact on safety results. But if they haven’t been trained on how to properly communicate, spot hazards, or contend with human factors then the risk of injury goes up for the workers under their supervision.
Every plant manager and EHS professional should ask themselves if the supervisors in their organization have what it takes to be workplace safety champions? If the answer is “no”, then it’s time to provide dedicated training to develop safety-minded supervisors who will keep employees safe and productive day in and day out.