Safety culture

Team players

Strengthening the relationship between safety pros and frontline supervisors

Photo: kali9/iStockphoto

Problem 1: The reluctant safety leader

No supervisor wants to see a worker injured on his or her watch. So why do some appear indifferent – or even resistant – to safety programs and policies?

They don’t trust you (yet). Attempting to force a reluctant supervisor to get in line with safety initiatives isn’t an option, said Judy Agnew, senior vice president of safety solutions at Atlanta-based Aubrey Daniels International. As Agnew pointed out, safety pros don’t usually hold formal positions of authority over supervisors, and even if they did, mandating safety never really works.

“What we know from the science of behavior is, if you take a negative, directive approach – what we call the ‘do-it-or-else approach’ – you’re going to get resistance,” Agnew said. “People will do only as much as they have to.”

The better alternative, she suggested, is to exercise positive influence, which relies on good relationships.

Relationships matter because they affect how people receive and respond to feedback, especially feedback that can be interpreted as criticism. Steven Simon, founder and president of Larchmont, NY-based Culture Change Consultants Inc., gave the example of having to speak to a frontline supervisor about workers not locking and tagging out equipment.

“In the absence of a good working relationship, it becomes a battle,” Simon said. “Nobody wants to listen to someone who’s coming down on them and doesn’t know where they come from. And everybody’s willing to have a conversation if they think you understand and have empathy for their situation.”

So, how can you convince supervisors that you’re all on the same team? The key, the experts agreed, is to position yourself as a coach, resource and partner, rather than the traditional “safety cop.”

“If safety professionals come across as compliance-focused ‘clipboard commandos’ – somebody who’s coming to inspect and find fault rather than to have a conversation and find solutions – that’s a mistake,” Harper said.

Instead, she recommended asking a lot of “why” questions and listening carefully. “You’re a lot more approachable and more likely to build good relationships with supervisors if you seek to understand first,” she continued. “Because they have very good reasons why they do things a certain way now; you just have to understand what those reasons are so you can address the real issue.”

Speaking with supervisors

Good communication is essential for productive safety professional-supervisor relationships. Experts who spoke with Safety+Health offered these tips to keep conversations clear and comfortable:

Put the relationship first. Unless it’s an emergency, don’t open with work talk. “Take that extra 45 seconds to reestablish the person-to-person relationship,” said Steven Simon, founder and president of Larchmont, NY-based Culture Change Consultants Inc. “Instead of, ‘Hey Steve, it’s the 30th of the month. Did you do your quality field audit for me?’ start with, ‘Hey Steve, how’s it going?’ The relationship should be first and the task second.”

Skip the jargon. Safety pros live in a world of technical terms and acronyms, which can be incomprehensible to supervisors. “Instead of OIR, TRIR, DART and LTIR, all you really need to say is, ‘It’s how frequently our people are getting hurt or how seriously they’re being hurt,’” said Chuck Douros, corporate director of safety for Nashville, TN-based BFC Solutions.

Tell stories. A conversation about technical issues doesn’t need to be dry. “Adults learn far better with stories, pictures and anecdotes than they do with facts and figures,” Douros said. “Tell a story about somebody they know who didn’t do the inspection properly and the price they paid.”

Highlight the benefits. Try viewing safety initiatives from the supervisor’s point of view. “Often, the supervisor looks at safety as a cost to them because they’re losing a worker for two hours to go to a safety meeting,” said Amy Harper, senior director of workplace training and consulting services at the National Safety Council. “Try to position safety as a plus: ‘You don’t want this person to be hurt or to stop the production line, so let’s do the right thing.’”

Follow up. Making a point and walking away isn’t enough – especially if it feels like you’re having the same conversations over and over. “Just telling people what to do will never change behavior permanently,” said Judy Agnew, senior vice president of safety solutions at Atlanta-based Aubrey Daniels International. “It’s the consequences we experience after we engage in a behavior that determine whether we keep doing it or not. So when people know you’re going to follow up, they’re much more likely to do what you’ve asked.”

They’re overwhelmed. Supervisors may see safety as one more task you’re asking them to cram into a schedule that’s already jam-packed.

“Too many supervisors are torn because they have to plan the work, they’re pulled into meetings, they’ve got reports to write and then they’ve got a million emails to answer,” Agnew said. “Many organizations have made it impossible for their supervisors to be good safety leaders because they’re so busy that they simply don’t have time to be out in the field or on the shop floor.”

Aside from advocating to management on supervisors’ behalf, safety pros don’t have many options to reduce these pressures. However, they can help maximize the impact of the time supervisors spend on safety.

“If supervisors can only interact with their direct reports once or twice a day, then help them think through the best time to do it and the biggest risks and hazards to focus on,” Agnew said. “Even better, give them something small, concrete and easy to do, like, ‘When you interact with your mechanics today, ask them what hazards they identified in their pre-task assessment,’ and then follow up. You’re likely to hear: A) ‘It wasn’t that hard to do,’ and B) ‘It actually helped!’”

They aren’t sure what they’re committing to. Supervisors may be in favor of safety leadership in theory but hesitant because they don’t know what it requires in practice.

“If you ask the average supervisor what a good safety leader would do over the course of a day or week, they cannot tell you in specifics, which is part of why they’re not doing it,” Agnew said. “If you want them to have three safety interactions in a day, or discuss hazards during a pre-shift meeting, then lay that out specifically.”

They aren’t in on the plan. It’s easy to understand why supervisors might be resistant to a safety directive that’s planned and implemented without their input.

“It’s often been said that people support what they create,” Douros said. “Imagine a three-day workshop where safety leaders and the senior team get in a room and bang out a three-year strategy, including a set of initiatives. And then they hand that strategy to supervisors in a document and say, ‘Make it happen.’ Now, imagine a workshop where they include a select group of key supervisor stakeholders, who spend three days elbow to elbow with the leadership team and are a substantial part of the strategy. It’s our experience that the supervisors then become far more willing to participate – not just now or a month from now, but three to five years from now.”

This approach can be particularly helpful when dealing with safety “non-believers.” Instead of bypassing them, try recruiting them to a safety committee or task force.

“If they’re part of the solution, they’re less likely to resist the efforts or voice their displeasure,” Harper said.

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