The Contribution of Supervisors and Middle Managers to Safety Performance

Sept. 1, 2008
Organization change starts from the top and safety improvement efforts must be driven by senior-most leaders.

Safety ultimately is about what happens in the workplace. When leaders set the directive to change the culture and lead improvement throughout the organization, it becomes imperative to transfer safety leadership principles and practices down to the site level.

In most organizations, supervisors and middle managers are key influences on organizational effectiveness and the natural proxy for senior leaders in day-to-day activities. Yet they often are left out of safety improvement efforts, largely because their role in safety is poorly understood. This article discusses the important role supervisors and middle managers play in safety improvement, and the key activities that can help them fulfill this role.

Supervisors, Managers and Safety

At its heart, management is about motivating, coordinating and directing the efforts of other people in accomplishing organizational objectives.

While front-line employees exercise some control over how they interact with the technology, they often have little if any control over the quality or condition of equipment, how systems fit the particular situation, the unstated assumptions of the organization or other factors that affect the level of exposure to hazard. This is where supervisors and middle managers come in.

By virtue of their proximity to the front-line, supervisors and managers provide the first line of defense in managing safety issues, communicating organizational priorities and values and building relationships with individual team members. They act as messengers from the senior leader to the employee and back up to leadership. The basic safety role of supervisors and managers is to enable and reduce exposures and to promote a culture in which injuries are not acceptable.

Leading from the Middle

Supervisors or middle managers are responsible for multiple priorities but have limited time in which to manage them. In addition, many people are promoted into these positions for their technical expertise and may not have received formal training in management and leadership.

Engaging supervisors and managers effectively in safety requires more than a general charge to “support safety.” Organizations need to define specific activities that can be integrated with the supervisor’s or manager’s other tasks and demands, including (at least):

  • Practice safety-critical behaviors – At-risk behaviors can occur at any level. Supervisors and managers must be able to identify how their behaviors influence hazards and consciously practice behaviors that reflect their support of safety.
  • Make regular safety contacts – Supervisors and managers need to assure basic safety functioning beyond the usual safety meeting. Together with senior leaders, this level can define essential safety practices that can be tracked over time for the workgroup. For example, safety planning with employees before a particular job or personally signing work permits.
  • Remove system barriers – Supervisors and managers are well-positioned to correct organizational conditions and systems that contribute to exposure. Addressing equipment availability or applying exposure recognition systems, for example, can help align the safety objective and conditions on the ground.
  • Monitor and correct working interface conditions – Supervisors and managers need to track leading indicator data and correct identified exposure conditions as they occur. To support this, this group needs to build fluency with the hierarchy of controls and its application in reducing or eliminating exposures.
  • Build the culture – Finally, supervisors and middle managers need to develop strong working relationships with their employees. In many respects, workers take the words and deeds of their supervisors and managers to represent “the company.” Qualities such as the perceived fairness of a supervisor’s decisions and the level of a manager’s credibility powerfully contribute to a safety-supporting culture.

Sustained Engagement

Effectively engaging supervisors and middle managers takes a long-term effort.

While skills development is important part to this effort, it would be a mistake to rely on training alone.
Behaviors can drive change only when aligned with the goals of the organization, modeled by others in the team, and reinforced by leaders. Organizations hoping to tap into the leverage of supervisors and middle managers on safety must be prepared to define a clear, comprehensive and sustained path forward.

Psychologist Thomas Krause, Ph.D., is chairman of the board of BST, a global safety performance consulting firm. He has conducted research and interventions in the use of performance improvement methods for accident prevention, culture change, leadership development and other applications. He has authored several books and articles on safety and leadership.

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