Safety culture

Team players

Strengthening the relationship between safety pros and frontline supervisors

Photo: kali9/iStockphoto

Problem 3: The ineffective safety leader

When supervisors care deeply about worker safety but can’t seem to channel that enthusiasm into effective safety leadership, it’s often because:

They lack training and coaching. Many supervisors weren’t chosen for their leadership skills.

“A lot of times, your best skilled labor becomes frontline supervisors,” Wolfley said. “And what we’ve seen in the past is that a lot of those supervisors get very little to no training on how to lead, so they rely on their own experience and how they were treated.”

That doesn’t always bode well for safety leadership, which is one reason UCOR emphasizes professional development for new supervisors, using tools such as extensive training as well as certification through the Board of Certified Safety Professionals’ Safety Trained Supervisor Construction program.

“The more education, awareness and tools you give to first-line supervisors, the better they can make informed decisions,” Wolfley said.

So much of safety for people is negative. We’ve got to start turning that around, celebrating our successes and recognizing people for what they are doing well.

Judy Agnew
Senior vice president of safety solutions
Aubrey Daniels International

They can be “clipboard commandos,” too. Supervisors face many of the same leadership challenges as safety pros, especially if they haven’t been coached to avoid common missteps.

“There are still many supervisors who say their role is to serve as the enforcer,” Agnew said. “If we really want to get people engaged and helping, then we can’t set our supervisors up to be the safety cop.”

Safety pros can counter the “enforcer” mentality by modeling the behaviors they’d like to see, such as asking questions instead of rushing to judgment.

“Supervisors really need to understand why their workers are taking risks,” Douros said. “We can’t prescribe before we diagnose, and we can’t diagnose without an inquiry, without asking why.”

Are workers taking risks consciously or just out of habit? Is an obstacle (such as broken or missing equipment) keeping them from doing their work safely?

The answers to these questions will help supervisors identify and address the real problems behind risky behaviors.

Positive feedback is another powerful tool safety pros can demonstrate for supervisors, because many only hear about safety when they’ve done something wrong.

“So much of safety for people is negative,” Agnew said. “We’ve got to start turning that around, celebrating our successes and recognizing people for what they are doing well.”

Post a comment to this article

Safety+Health welcomes comments that promote respectful dialogue. Please stay on topic. Comments that contain personal attacks, profanity or abusive language – or those aggressively promoting products or services – will be removed. We reserve the right to determine which comments violate our comment policy. (Anonymous comments are welcome; merely skip the “name” field in the comment box. An email address is required but will not be included with your comment.)