Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: The link between successful outcomes and supervisor excellence

Safety Leadership

Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. In this monthly column, experts from global consulting firm DEKRA share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to safety excellence.

“What happens when you hit the e-stop?”

I recently asked this question to a group of frontline employees in a manufacturing plant. They looked at me as if I had two heads.

“Well, the machine stops,” they answered, obviously thinking I was clueless.

“And then what happens?” I continued.

They replied, “The supervisor shows up pretty quickly.”

I then got to the real question: “What does the supervisor say or do?”

This is when the answers can diverge. In this case, the response was, “They want to know what’s going on, why the machine is down and how they can help.” Other responses might include: “You’re in big trouble now,” “They yell at you,” or even “Oh, I would never hit the e-stop. We just don’t do that here.”

As new employees, we’re trained in what the safety rules are, what’s expected of us and, in this example, when it’s appropriate to stop work. Getting desired behaviors is dependent on how the frontline supervisor responds when the job pauses. Even if we know that a certain safe behavior is expected – or even required – of us, the consequences are the most important influence on future behavior.

So, what must the supervisor do or say to reinforce the job pause? And how can leaders ensure the supervisor has the skills to pause the job, especially when under multiple pressures? Here are several considerations that will affect individual behavior and the safety culture we should seek to build.

Set clear expectations. Employees need to begin their day knowing what’s expected of them and what success looks like. It’s the supervisor’s job to communicate this and ensure employees understand.

Respond with care in the moment. It’s easy to jump right into interaction with employees to get things moving. Take a moment to reflect and check that your efforts are aligned with safe and efficient performance and model care for each other. Care is underpinned with respect and supports positive relationships.

Watch your tone, especially when under urgency pressures or multiple priorities. Don’t place blame or be critical, which can create defensiveness. Remember that tone matters – it can speak louder than words and help foster trust in the workplace.

Respond positively. This helps shape critical behaviors, such as pausing work whether it’s necessary or not. We want to shape the behavior of pausing work when a concern arises. Employees can be coached in the details, but if we respond negatively to pausing work, the behavior we so desperately want may be extinguished.

Share successes. Closing the loop of expectations and the experience not only reinforces what success looks like but also creates opportunities for learning.

Developing frontline leaders is critical to getting the work done and building the leaders of tomorrow. The same process for developing frontline employees works for developing frontline leaders:

  • Make your expectations clear.
  • Create opportunities to align with potential situations and how best to handle them.
  • Model the behaviors you want to see in others. Make safety contacts with your frontline leaders and demonstrate your commitment to safety. Model safe behaviors, provide feedback and engage others.

Giving feedback and celebrating successes will guide supervisors and the organization. We all have a role in safety, as well as an impact on others and the culture. Together, we can create the successful outcomes we all want.


This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Erika Gwilt is vice president of client engagement for DEKRA. Her extensive experience in leadership development and business strategy enables her to help clients engage their entire workforce in improving safety outcomes. Her areas of expertise include leadership coaching, sustainable safety performance, serious injury and fatality analysis and prevention, and measurement of program effectiveness.



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