How Supervisors Can Promote and Manage Safety in Operations

Feb. 24, 2010
By understanding two fundamental questions and leading by example, supervisors can encourage their employees to work safely, according to Paul D. Balmert, a consultant with years of experience as a line manager in the chemical industry. In an interview with EHS Today, Balmert discussed managing safety in operations and offered some practical tips for supervisors.

As principal of Balmert Consulting, Paul Balmert helps improve safety leadership practices for clients worldwide in industries including chemical manufacturing, constructing, mining, oil and gas exploration, production and refining and more. His new book, Alive and Well at the End of the Day: The Supervisor’s Guide to Managing Safety in Operations, aims to help front-line supervisors protect workers from accidents and resulting injuries.

Balmert is a 30-year veteran of the chemical industry. He spent 26 years working for Union Carbide Corp. at the plant, division and corporate levels. For 13 years, he worked as a line manager responsible for managing maintenance, shift production and distribution operations at what was then the company’s largest manufacturing facility.

“If you went back 25 years ago and asked me the day I took the [line manager] job, I would have told you I knew everything there was to know about getting people to work safe,” he told EHS Today. “If you asked me 2 days later, I would have told you I didn’t know anything at all. That training I got in college and grad school didn’t prepare me for the practical side of what you do to actually get people to work safe.”

Lead by Example

Showing supervisors how they can foster safe work practice has since become Balmert’s mission. As he learned, safety doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated.

“It turns out that the best truths are the old truths,” he explained. “Some things never go out of fashion. The fundamental truth No. 1 is to lead by example.”

By simply following the rules and leading by example, front-line supervisors will stay safe themselves while also making a big impression on employees. The visual impact of a worker seeing his manager or supervisor hold the handrails or wear the correct PPE, for example, results in a more powerful message than simply telling the worker to do so.

“We really are followers at every level in every organization,” Balmert said. “We are wired for sight.”

Fundamental Questions

Balmert said that leaders should ask themselves and their workers two fundamental questions. First, what are the really important things in your life, the kind of things that make you get up and go to work in the morning? Next, what would a really serious injury do to all those important things?

“In a word, it would devastate them, right?” Balmert said. “Everyone knows that. It’s true for everyone. Once you understand those two fundamental questions – why do people get up and go to work in the morning, and what would a really bad accident do to people – you once and for all understand that what makes safety so important isn’t really like any other business objective.”

While other aspects of company operations can be measured in dollars, Balmert said, “When it comes to safety, it’s really human life and everything that’s important in people’s lives. That might be the biggest single fundamental lesson every leader needs to understand.”

Smart Practices

Balmert offered some practical tips for line managers who find themselves in specific situations, such as witnessing an employee performing a task unsafely. In that case, the first step is to get the worker out of harm’s way as quickly as possible. Next, make sure the worker understands the rules, requirements and risks of the situation. And don’t forget to let the worker have his say, too.

“You always want to give the guy a chance to talk. There may be a perfectly good reason for why he’s doing what he’s doing,” Balmert said. “If you ask and he explains, you might have an entirely different view of the situation.”

This approach also leads to a dialogue between the supervisor and employee. “Two-way conversations are far more effective, make people a lot less defensive and give them a chance to explain,” Balmert said.

Promoting a two-way conversation also is useful in regular toolbox safety talks, which Balmert described as a “time-honored tradition.”

“In a sense, it’s a very good thing,” he said of the toolbox safety meeting. “The problem is that after a while, it’s almost like commercials on TV – people sort of click off. If you’re not careful, what starts out being a good practice is [reduced] to saying something by rote.”

When supervisors pick good, timely topics that are relevant to workers, however, these meetings can be a powerful tool. If the topic is cell phone use while driving, for example, the supervisor can address a recent car accident that made the news. Alternatively, he or she could ask workers questions, such as how often they see drivers using cell phones, to prompt discussion. This technique, which Balmert called “Ask, Don’t Tell,” is more effective than simply lecturing employees.

Influence and Credibility

Finally, Balmert stressed that front line supervisors in various businesses and industries have “tremendous influence and tremendous credibility.”

“The guys doing the work pay a lot more attention to their front-line supervisor than they ever do the plant manager or the vice president,” Balmert said. “The biggest single mistake I saw in my 30 years was when managers didn’t understand or appreciate [that] and therefore didn’t take maximum advantage of that tremendously powerful leader out there.”

It’s a theme that can be applied almost universally. After all, Balmert said, employees across the world typically answer his two fundamental questions – what are the most important things in their lives and how would a serious injury affect them – in the same way.

“I’m absolutely struck by how much the answers are identical no matter where in the world you go,” Balmert said. “I think the biggest single thing that I would encourage any manager doing business anywhere in the world is to understand that we’re all people, and going home safe is absolutely the most important thing any leader can do. Sending someone home hurt is the worst thing any leader can do to anybody on the planet. It really is that simple and that powerful.”

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