Safety culture

Team players

Strengthening the relationship between safety pros and frontline supervisors

Photo: kali9/iStockphoto

Problem 2: The ‘safety-third’ leader

When supervisors say they support your initiatives but relegate “safety first” to a distant third behind priorities such as production and quality, experts say it’s often because:

They’re getting mixed signals. What you see as a lack of commitment to safety on the front lines may actually be supervisors coping with a lack of alignment in safety messaging across the organization.

“Supervisors are being told that safety is No. 1,” Simon said. “But really, production is No. 1. For example, if we have the value that it’s OK to stop the production line when there’s a safety issue, a mixed message would be, ‘If you stop the line, you’re going to get called on the carpet for why production is down, and you’d better be right – you’d better justify it.’”

Safety pros can help clarify these messages by facilitating more open dialogue across different levels of the organization. First, Simon suggested, try sitting down with a few supervisors, asking about any mixed messages that interfere with their safety efforts, and then raising those issues with management at a staff meeting.

“Once they realize supervisors don’t trust that they’re going to be backed up and supported, I’ve seen site managers call supervisors together and say, ‘Listen, I don’t want anybody getting hurt in this plant. I am willing to stop the line, and if you’re wrong and it wasn’t really a safety issue, I want you to know I’ve got your back.’”

Remember that safety doesn’t have to be at odds with other priorities. For example, UCOR, an environmental cleanup and nuclear operations contractor for the Department of Energy, has aligned its productivity and safety goals “to the point where they’re synonymous with one another,” said Clinton Wolfley, vice president of safety systems and services for the Oak Ridge, TN-based organization. “That means that the greater the production, the greater the safety, and vice versa. We can take on higher-risk work with confidence because of the emphasis we’ve placed on safety.”

They deliver the priorities, they establish the pace, they set the attitude for the day. So, teaching frontline leaders to proactively coach for performance and safety is one of the most powerful things a safety professional can do for the organization.

Chuck Douros
Corporate director of safety
BFC Solutions

They aren’t getting adequate feedback on safety metrics. It’s natural for supervisors to focus on what they’re being evaluated most frequently.

“Safety metrics often get recorded and talked about on a monthly basis, whereas production and quality metrics are being passed down to supervisors sometimes on an hourly basis,” Harper said.

One reason for this discrepancy is a focus on lagging indicators of safety performance, such as incident rates.

“If supervisors are only held accountable for how many incidents they have, then a supervisor who hasn’t had an incident for a while can assume all is well and focus on other things,” Agnew said. “They know their boss isn’t going to say anything to them about safety, but will definitely ask about other key performance indicators.”

Agnew also pointed out that a lack of incidents doesn’t necessarily mean a crew is safe.

Harper suggested working with your human resources department to build leading indicators into performance rating systems or incentive programs. These measures could include:

  • Preventive activities that can be tracked on a daily or weekly basis, such as inspections and observations.
  • Closure rates for corrective actions on issues that come up in audits or inspections.
  • Risk scores for particular activities that can be tracked and lowered as controls are put in place.

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