Involving front-line supervisors in safety observations

We have had front-line employees doing safety observations for several years with good results. Now we want to get supervisors more involved, but are afraid of undermining our success with hourly workers. What kinds of activities should we focus on?

Answered by Rebecca Nigel, managing editor of BST, Ojai, CA.

Many organizations have successfully added a role for supervisors alongside existing front-line observations. The key to their success is recognizing that each level has a unique role. Front-line engagement works because hourly employees are at the heart of the working interface – the configuration of equipment, facilities, systems and actions that defines the interaction of the worker with the technology and where exposure to hazards exists. While employees have some control over how they interact with the technology, they often have little control (if any) over the quality or condition of equipment, the appropriateness of systems to the particular situation, the unstated assumptions of the organization, or myriad other factors that affect the level of exposure. This is where supervisors come in.

Supervisors link management and the workforce. By virtue of their proximity to the front line, supervisors are the first line of defense in managing safety issues, communicating organizational priorities and values, and building relationships with individual team members. Supervisor activities in safety need to leverage these impacts in a way that does not interfere with the integrity of the front-line initiative. A basic set could include:

Making regular safety contacts – Supervisors need to ensure basic safety functioning beyond the requisite safety meeting. Together with senior leaders, supervisors can define safety practices essential for their work group that can be tracked over time (for example, safety planning with employees before a particular job or personally signing work permits). Some organizations determine that performing safety observations is an appropriate supervisor practice. In this instance, discipline absolutely must be excluded, otherwise the activity undermines the cultural framework where exposures can be openly identified and discussed. One simple way to exclude discipline is to assign supervisors to observe only contractors or employees in other work groups.

Removing barriers – Supervisors are well positioned to correct many organizational conditions and systems that contribute to exposure. Engaging supervisors in addressing these issues (for instance, improving equipment availability or the application of recognition systems) helps organizations ensure alignment between the safety objective and on-the-ground conditions.

Monitoring and correcting working interface conditions – Tracking leading indicator data and correcting identified exposure conditions is another supervisor essential. Supervisors need to build fluency with the hierarchy of controls and its application in reducing or eliminating exposures.

Addressing culture issues – Finally, supervisors strongly influence the culture that underlies performance. The quality of the relationship between employee and supervisor, fairness in decision making, and management credibility are among the essential qualities supervisors need to develop within their team to set the stage for a high level of performance.

The hard part of engagement is that supervisors often are promoted for their technical ability rather than their leadership skills. For that reason, integrating a strong supervisor presence in safety demands time up front on appropriate assessment activities and skills development. Done well, supervisor engagement helps organizations develop the systems, culture and leadership essential to safety excellence. And that strengthens engagement at every level.

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