The Importance of Site Supervisors to Safety

When it comes to HS&E excellence, are you ensuring a group of essential players are directly involved and are performing according to what is wanted and needed?

I'd be willing to bet that if you ask your supervisors, especially with all the organizational changes that have been rampant throughout companies today, if they have enough to do, the answer would be an unequivocal "Yes." But if their "To Do" list does not include "Health, Safety & Environmental Leader," your supervisors are not doing an adequate or complete job. Not for you, your employees, your community or your company's bottom line.

We want to highlight the essential role that needs to be played by the various levels of supervisors in your organization's productivity effectiveness continuum and whether that includes the continual improvement of your health, safety and environmental (HS&E) culture and its integration into everyone's everyday work activities, regardless of the department, job or areas of responsibility. Given their critical proximity to the various levels of management above them in the organizational ladder, and the men and women they supervise who are responsible for producing specific results related to the final product or service of the company, supervisors are the individuals who play an essential role in carrying out the HS&E mandates set for the company and ensure they show up in the attitudes and behaviors of the men and women they influence. Like the conductor of an orchestra, supervisors set the tone for health, safety and environmental performance, so you must ensure that their actions will strongly influence your company's outcomes.

Everyone is Responsible for Safety

We discovered many years ago (and it's become conventional wisdom) the all-important need to include and involve everyone up and down the line in a company's HS&E initiative. I believe this to be absolutely true! Yet I also believe that the attitudes and actions of your supervisory personnel can make or break any health, safety and environmental improvement process. Certainly, some aspects of your process can and must proceed independently of these people. But the question HS&E professionals and key site leadership must ask themselves is, "How deep and far-reaching can an HS&E initiative be and the resulting changes and improvements be sustained without the active involvement of site supervision?"

Several years ago, we worked long and hard to bring health, safety and environmental improvement to a division of a utility in a major U.S. city. Our chief ally and supporter was the division's general manager. She played an active role throughout the process from assessment through training. Her enthusiasm for, and commitment to, the work served to bind together the various factions within the facility and had everyone begin to believe that their health and safety truly mattered.

About midway through our 18-month process, we received a significant setback. It wasn't a budget cut, or an announcement of a wall-to-wall OSHA inspection, but the effects were equally dramatic. The general manager who had been our primary link with the division and its people was promoted to a higher corporate position. Her replacement had not been part of the process, and we immediately set out to bring him up to speed, explaining the process and the expectations.

But we found ourselves significantly stalled. Before long, it became clear that the new GM had his own agenda for the division's priorities and of course, for health, safety and the environment. And not surprisingly, the attentions of his most direct reports those we had relied on for the resources, insights and support necessary to drive the process began to wane as they loyally followed their boss in new directions.

We were concerned that the success of our process and the impact on the men and women that worked out in the field would dissipate and result in incidents occurring and, ultimately, people being injured in a minor or major way.

From feedback from the safety director and committee about improvements there, we discovered that rather than be doomed to failure from the loss of our process's "best friend," safe attitudes and behaviors continued to be instilled and carried out as people did their jobs. This achievement had in large part to do with the fact that supervision had bought in to the vision for HS&E excellence that we developed with their involvement and the direct involvement of their managers. We also worked with them to develop the kind of safety attitudes that supported a belief in the importance and benefit of safety to everyone. We provided them with the leadership, communication and coaching and counseling skills to ensure that HS&E excellence was known and integrated into what they and the people they were responsible for did everyday. They saw very simply that to do a job safely usually doesn't take any or much more time and, even if it did, it was worth it. They interacted with and managed their crews to ensure that people took the time needed to do their jobs safely. A surprising outcome, to their satisfaction, was that due to their insistence on the importance of and compliance with HS&E requirements, along with their expression that this drive for compliance came from their concern for people's welfare, people believed they did matter to them, and the quality of their work actually improved along with their safety. The return on investment was as good or better as it could have been with the original general manager leading the way.

Some Strategies

A great deal of your success in ensuring HS&E involvement and ownership by your supervisory staff will come from how you interact with them, enrolling them in a vision of HS&E excellence and in the value of integrating HS&E on a daily and moment-to-moment basis. Consider these steps:

  • Make sure supervisors are part of any HS&E initiative whether implemented by internal or external HS&E consultants. Make sure their opinions and buy-in are sought.
  • Define clearly for supervisors their role and responsibility for HS&E. Set clear objectives and determine accountabilities for daily activities. Follow up with them, assess how they are carrying out their activities and coach them where their performance is not up to standards. Have supervisors tell you how they will ensure these activities will be carried out on a daily basis! Discuss with your supervisors the kinds of attitudes, language and behaviors that will have the most positive impact.
  • Make sure your supervisors have a complete understanding of your HS&E process so that they can speak about it in depth. Present hard data about the anticipated impact of your process and do it in both human and businesslike terms. Rather than discuss incident rates (people will interpret this as the company considers incident rates more important than company employees), talk first about the impact of incidents to the human being and related suffering, and then about the cost to the company in time, money, replacement costs, etc. when people are injured.
  • Train your supervisors to be internal sales people who are able to "sell" the importance of safety to every level of employee. Instruct them in the necessity of requesting the allocation of necessary resources to correct unsafe/hazardous conditions, provide proper safeguards, and offer adequate training for new and old employees. They need to spread and support the message up and down the line that unsafe attitudes and behaviors must change and personal responsibility for HS&E improvements includes everyone and is not an effort or responsibility of one group of people alone.
  • Make sure that supervisors receive direct feedback about the impact of their involvement, be it positive or negative. Supervisors also need communication and effective speaking and listening skills to ensure that other employees are comfortable communicating directly with them rather than avoiding them and complaining to others.
  • Let your supervisors know that HS&E commitments and responsibilities are an integral part of the productivity process and that they must manage and support these commitments in an impeccable manner.

Expand Their Abilities and Commitments

Most supervisors have many talents and a keen ability to carry out the mandates that are given related to the objectives and strategies needed to ensure the achievement of the company's goals. Like the performers I saw on the Ed Sullivan show many years ago on TV, they are experts in the art of keeping multiple plates spinning in the air. Their active and sincere participation as front-line advocates for health, safety and environmental excellence is essential to prevent incidents of all types. They must understand and be empowered through proper training and support how to balance these responsibilities along with the myriad other priorities related to production, quality, cost, customer service and so on.

They must understand (and again be empowered and supported) that in a moment of choice between having a job done safely that will ensure people's health and well-being and that of the environment, and taking a chance or allowing someone to bypass a procedure to achieve the production/service result, they must choose the side of HS&E. That decision, and the actions that follow, will do a great deal to communicate the genuine commitment to the health, safety and environment-first message to your key constituent groups from managers and line employees to unions, customers, supply chain partners and local and global citizens. It also will signal whether our actions are consistent with our words.

Contributing Editor Michael D. Topf is president of Topf Organization, King of Prussia, Pa. He can be reached at (610) 783-1776 or on the Web at

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