Safety culture

Safety conduit

A strong relationship with supervisors can help safety professionals reach workers

Supervisor safety pro

Key points

  • A study from Australia determined that a strong commitment to safety from supervisors and top management was associated with fewer lost-time injuries.
  • To help avoid tension between safety and production, safety professionals should try to accommodate the supervisor's schedule.
  • One suggestion is for safety professionals to seek input from supervisors rather than dictate how to handle a situation.

Early in his safety career, Gerald Edgar learned a lesson he has applied for more than three decades: safety requires teamwork. And one of the most crucial relationships that enables a team to work together is the one between safety professionals and supervisors.

Supervisors “know the personalities [of their workers] far better than the safety professional does,” said Edgar, environmental, health and safety manager at Charles City, IA- based Mitas Tires North America Inc. “So without them, you’re doomed to failure – or at least doomed to less than optimal success.”

As Edgar and other safety professionals attest, making headway on the shop floor requires having buy-in at the supervisor level. However, although safety comes first for the safety department, supervisors may have production or quality concerns that take precedence. To develop an effective partnership, safety professionals should adopt strategies aimed at smoothing tension and creating a trusting relationship with supervisors.

Benefits of the partnership

A study published in the Journal of Construction Engineering and Management (Vol. 138, No. 2) from the University of Melbourne highlights the connection between supervisors and safety. Researchers surveyed workers at three construction firms to gauge their view of the safety actions of the organization, supervisors and co-workers. Results showed an inverse relationship between perceptions of supervisor safety expectations and rates of lost-time injuries and medical treatment, which suggests workers may behave safer when they perceive their supervisor as being committed to safety.

Researchers also found a strong relationship between supervisors’ safety views and those of top management. As the researchers explained, supervisors are a “conduit” through which the organization’s safety values reach workers.

On a practical level, safety professionals need supervisors as an ally because supervisors are closer to the worker – in terms of both proximity and relationship. Guy Chenard, senior health and safety advisor at Ontario Power Generation’s Lambton Generating Station, gave an example to illustrate this point: A power plant worker sees a cart is blocking the fire extinguisher cabinet. He knows blocking the extinguisher is a violation, so he moves the cart. But if the issue was something he could not handle on his own, he would report it to his supervisor.

“The critical component is the worker-supervisor [level] because that’s where things get done and that’s where things can get fixed or done very easily,” he said.

In Chenard’s view, the role of the safety professional is to advise supervisors, who have authority and influence over their direct reports. Safety professionals can observe and guide supervisors, but should be careful to not interfere or tell the worker what to do, he added.

Part of that advisory role is helping supervisors take ownership of safety, according to Brittany Perry, safety manager at a L’Oreal USA Inc. plant in Florence, KY.

“We may be a resource for them and another tool, but having that good rapport with our line manager drives that culture so that employees feel they have an open line of communication with their supervisors,” Perry said.

That way, workers feel comfortable bringing safety issues to their supervisor rather than only consulting the safety professional.

Supervisors also can provide safety professionals with useful information about workers. Edgar recalled a time when he was working for a crane manufacturer and three workers were unable to come to work because of three separate home-roof falls. One worker was stringing Christmas lights, another was fiddling with the TV antenna and the third was cleaning out a gutter. Because Edgar had a good relationship with the supervisor, the supervisor told him the circumstances of each injury so he could address the pattern in off-the-job injuries.

Forming the relationship

To establish a relationship, Edgar suggests safety professionals set aside time on a regular basis to leave their office and interact with supervisors. Hosting occasional meetings or sending out memos is not enough.

“The biggest challenge to safety today,” he said, “[is] a guy or a gal in safety increasingly is forced to spend so much time at their computer or reading documents or taking continuing [education]. You still have to prioritize your time on the plant floor.”

Safety professionals also should entrust supervisors with relevant safety duties, Perry advises. At her plant, the line supervisor observes a machine while it is running and identifies any hazards in need of correction. The safety professional re-evaluates the machine with the supervisor, but the supervisor already has had a chance to make changes, and the safety professional will run any additional fixes by the supervisor.

The example reflects Perry’s strategy of engaging supervisors rather than dictating to them. She cautions against telling a supervisor, “Hey, I noticed this is a problem,” and then walking away. Instead, she said, help the supervisor fix it on the spot or offer to come up with a solution.

“I think when you start to dump things [on supervisors] it loses its value and safety becomes another thing that they have to do versus what they want to do or should be doing,” Perry said.

Likewise, safety professionals should make the supervisor’s concerns a priority. As Edgar put it, “If they ask you for something, you’ve got to follow up or else you lose your credibility.”

‘How can I make it palatable for you?’

Safety professionals and supervisors often have different perspectives. Supervisors have production demands to meet and may not see the value of a safety change that will disrupt work.

“Safety and production always has a bit of tension when the production people think that I’m trying to slow them down. Whether it’s on purpose or accidentally, it doesn’t matter,” said Chris Campbell, environmental, health and safety manager at Mason, MI-based Dart Container Corp.

Campbell said the supervisors at a previous employer opposed safety because they viewed it as an obstacle to production. He eased the tension by approaching supervisors and saying, “I understand this is going to slow things down. How can I make it palatable for you? What can you accept?”

Sometimes that meant scheduling maintenance at a time before or after a shift or during lunchtime. “Yes, I’m taking time out of their schedule, but I do it when it’s convenient for them – not when it’s necessarily convenient for me,” Campbell said.

He advocates giving supervisors the leeway to choose how to accomplish safety objectives and regulatory requirements.

“Another thing I do is I discuss with them how things are going to happen,” Campbell said, “and I don’t mind if they take the credit for it. Almost everyone will be able to support something that’s his or hers.”

He also takes as much safety work off the supervisor’s plate as possible. For instance, rather than have supervisors at his current employer fill out a lengthy injury report, Campbell gives them a simple, fill-in-the-blank-style form, and then he completes the long version.

Stopping work

One of the most difficult situations is when the safety professional needs to stop a project. Jim Harris and David Sherwood of SWCA Environmental Consultants can relate. Harris is environmental, health and safety manager, and Sherwood is safety auditor/trainer, for the Phoenix-based firm, which provides environmental and safety consulting on scientific construction projects.

Sherwood described a project that required surveying an area for vegetation and plants. The data point was filled with extremely thorny Russian olive plants. The client protocol required that SWCA take the reading at that point, but Sherwood recognized that it was unsafe and offered some options: choose another spot free of the hazard, or reschedule and return with appropriate personal protective equipment. They ended up taking the latter option.

Sherwood is developing a manual to help front-line supervisor make sound, safe decisions in the field. The manual focuses on the reasons behind policies and provides tips for facilitating safety procedures, such as organizing safety meetings so they focus on issues relevant to that day and do not run too long.

Harris and Sherwood believe it is important to involve supervisors in safety efforts because supervisors know the work best and are more likely to comply when they feel personally invested. Sherwood applied this principle to the manual by asking a dozen supervisors at SWCA what has made them successful and what recommendations they have for their peers. Incorporating their feedback into the manual gives supervisors a stake in creating it, he explained.

Additionally, Sherwood emphasized that safety professionals need to understand the actual tasks that the supervisor and crew are performing.

“It’s not very effective, in my experience, to basically try to promote a safety policy if you don’t know how it relates to the person in the field and if you don’t know the effective way to do it,” he said. “You have to know how they build that wall in order to help them be safe building that wall.”

Delivery counts

Success with supervisors depends as much on the safety professional’s approach as the actual message. When approaching supervisors or workers about unsafe work practices, Harris and Sherwood suggest safety professionals pull the person aside and say, “I’m uncomfortable with the way you’re doing it,” and propose a safer method. When injuries occur, Harris and Sherwood organize a safety stand-down and distribute a document explaining what happened, where the system broke down and what will be done to prevent another incident.

“You should approach people and ask them if they think that’s the safest way to do something, because if you tell them it’s not safe, they’re going to get defensive,” Campbell recommended. “If you ask them if that’s safe, they’ll honestly think about it and they’ll give you an honest answer back.” And then the supervisor will own the solution because they came up with it, Campbell said.

For this strategy to work, supervisors need proper safety training so that when an unorthodox situation arises, they will make the right decision even in the absence of written protocol.

At L’Oreal, Perry trains line supervisors to provide safety training to workers and, on a monthly basis, observe positive and negative behaviors and address them. Supervisors provide most of the worker training, although safety professionals may help develop the material. Discipline also comes directly from the supervisor, she said.

The same is true at Ontario Power Generation, where the line organization applies progressive discipline. Chenard said disciplinary action occurs separately from the investigation of an incident to help avoid the perception that the worker is being punished because of safety.

Allowing supervisors to handle training and discipline goes back to Campbell’s point about trusting the supervisor’s instinct and expertise.

“Someone who invents their own wheel is more likely to use it,” he said. “Let people discover.They’ve got experience – respect that. They’ve got expertise – respect that.”


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