3 Reasons Supervisors Make Or Break Safety

Everything that matters in "the way we do things 'round here" rests almost solely with supervisors.

Makeorbreak02.jpgSenior management doesn't create safety culture. It's impossible for senior management to be connected with every nut and bolt, every shovel full of dirt and every connected wire. It's impossible to see that from the senior management perch.

But this is the world that supervisors live in; one connected wire at a time, one shovel of dirt, one torqued nut and bolt.

It is for those reasons alone that supervisors have far more influence over the safety culture than a CEO. There is no doubt that senior management can influence a safety culture. But senior management neither creates safety culture nor reinforces it. The best they can do is commit to it and support it. Everything that matters in "the way we do things 'round here" rests almost solely with supervisors.

But not all supervisors are given proper management-skills training courses. They may not know how to manage people, how to inspire them, or how to help them find their motivations for safety. Too many supervisors ascend into their positions without the tools to help them do the job effectively. But supervisors are certainly responsible for production, safety and teamwork. And if none of it happens, the supervisor is to blame.

If you're a front-line supervisor, here are three reasons that your position can make or break safety and the crew culture:

1Everything happens at the front-line. And that's where supervisors are. It is for those reasons alone that supervisors have far more influence over safety culture than a CEO. Production happens at the front-line. Safety happens at the front-line and working as a tightly-knit team happens at the front line. Front-line supervisors create the crew culture. The largest influence on crew culture comes from the immediate supervisor. The responsibilities and deadlines are placed on front-line crews to get work done on time and on budget. Middle and senior management support the people who do the work, the front-line crews. The front-line supervisors play a direct role in assuring employees are productive and safe.

2Supervisors emulate their bosses. Front-line supervisors, lacking in management-skills training, take their cues from their last boss. If their last boss had good skills, then supervisors can build their own foundational skills and values. If the past boss had little in the way of skills, that is likely the example that would move forward in the new supervisor. So the supervisor who lacks management skills takes their cue from their last boss. But when middle-management lacks skills, it becomes the norm for supervisors to emulate. Unfortunately, that means rules-enforcement. Rules enforcement is easy. No one can argue the rules or the law. Quoting from the procedures book can easily become the default position for a rookie supervisor. When the focus is on rules-enforcement, it's not on developing employees to embrace safety.

3The supervisor's personal values play a big role. If the supervisor holds the view that their position is one of authority, they will exercise that authority. If they believe that their position is one of positive influence and mentorship, then they will help employees develop. If the supervisor holds strongly the safety of their people above all else, they will focus on safety in everything the crew does. They will take the time to plan procedures and support their crew to have each others' backs. A supervisor with strong safety values will push back when pressured to shortcut safety. A supervisor with strong values does not give up their values because of pressure to change. When the safety of the crew is foremost in the mind of a supervisor, they will stand up for their team. They will push back against those who demand more at the risk of safety. It is these kinds of values and principles-based supervisors who can build a strong crew culture. It is these kinds of supervisors who establish themselves as worthy safety leaders.

New Call-to-action Supervisors either make or break the safety culture, one crew at a time. Because senior management can't be in touch with every turn of the wrench, they may not see the impact of hurry-up decisions. It is up to the supervisor to defend his good people. And to protect them from distraction and pressure.

Let’s use this analogy to illustrate the importance of the front-line supervisor. If senior management is responsible for the health of the forest, supervisors are responsible for the health of each individual tree.

Kevin Burns gives engaging, entertaining and inspiring speeches to front-line employees at safety meetings. He also works with supervisors and safety managers on-site or in keynote presentations at conferences. Kevin helps organizations integrate caring for and valuing employees through their safety programs. Kevin Burns is a management consultant, safety speaker and author of 9 books.He is based in Calgary, Canada.

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Topics: safety leadership, kevin burns, safety culture