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Think Safety and Supervising Are Separate Jobs? Think Again

Supervisor and safety manager walking on worksite

Safety is one of many job requirements for shift supervisors and other frontline leaders. Though most of their daily tasks may have very little to do with safety, they are directly linked to the wellbeing of the employees they supervise.

It might not be easy to see this link between frontline leaders and employee safety, but according to the OHS magazine article “The Supervisor’s Crucial Role in Safety Performance, there is a quick thought experiment that can help anyone see this connection clearly.

Ray Prest, the article’s author, suggests the following:

The most commonly cited workplace safety challenges include recurring injuries, a lack of worker engagement and buy-in, employees taking shortcuts or not following rules, a lack of personal accountability for safety, and competing organizational priorities. Pick any one of these issues and consider how the problem’s impact would change if every supervisor in the workplace had strong communication skills, understood advanced safety concepts like human factors, and had experience with empowering their team to improve on the issue.

Now picture the opposite: a set of supervisors who lack the ability to have difficult safety conversations with workers, who aren’t able to spot safety issues (let alone anticipate them before they occur), and who are unpracticed in leading with a safety-first mindset. 

Most people receive promotions not because they’re great communicators or leaders but because they’re good at their job. Unfortunately, being a supervisor comes with a new set of responsibilities that require tools and approaches that are often missing from the supervisors’ old toolset. 

So what should organizations do once they acknowledge the impact frontline leaders have on safety and realize that their supervisors lack the skills necessary to engage the workers and keep them safe? Rather than look for new supervisors, the companies should invest in helping their leaders develop these skills. According to Prest, “there are six main qualities that can make or break a supervisor’s ability to move the needle on safety outcomes” and although they’re not always innate, these skills can be taught. 

Prest says that another problem is that all six of these competencies need to be strong and well-developed. If even one is missing, it can have disastrous consequences. He notes, “supervisory safety skills can be improved—but supervisors are unlikely to spontaneously decide to master these specific qualities.” And this means that it’s up to organizational leadership to inspire their supervisors and provide them with the required support and education. 

In his article, Prest takes a deep dive into three of the six vital supervisory skills and provides some valuable advice for those hoping to learn more about the subject and help supervisors become better safety leaders. If you’d like to learn more, read the article here.

On-demand webinar

Safety and the Supervisor: Developing Frontline Leadership Skills to Improve Safety

Supervisors are the bridge between organizational directives and on-the-ground operations. Their skills and knowledge are critical to a seamless flow of information in both directions and to their organization's safety success. This webinar offers EHS managers and company executives actionable advice on improving safety through leveraging the role of frontline leaders.

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