Line supervisors are your link to workers. They know the triggers that workers respond to and generally have detailed knowledge of the work, equipment and processes with which the workers are involved. Further, the employee generally seeks approval and acceptance from the supervisor. If the supervisor exhibits safe behavior, the employee is more likely to do the same. And if line supervisors can convey and enforce that safety is a “condition of employment,” it will do wonders for reducing unsafe behaviors.

Supervisors can play a vital role by observing, coaching and administering consequences, such as positive and negative reinforcement and punishment. This is directly in-line with supervisors’ typical roles in a company, so you are not necessarily adding anything to their routines — simply ensuring they use their supervisory and leadership skills to promote safety.

Supervisors, conversely, can be a primary cause of unsafe behavior. For example, if the supervisor doesn’t ensure lockout equipment is available, workers may not ask for it, particularly if the supervisor is not a good communicator.

Getting involvement
Just as supervisors need to provide reinforcement to affect workers’ behaviors, safety professionals (or department managers) must provide reinforcement to the supervisor for carrying out safety responsibilities. There are countless ways to do this — from a pat on the back to monetary incentives to discipline. Usually, a combination is best.

And before you can hold supervisors accountable, you need to give them the tools they need to perform adequately (e.g., safe equipment and training).

Performance appraisals
One popular approach to ensuring supervisor involvement is tying safety into supervisors’ bonuses. You might consider including a few safety-related criteria as part of the overall criteria on which the supervisor is evaluated. Ideally, supervisors will be evaluated on proactive, positive objectives that the supervisor can affect, such as “Do X number of Job Safety Analyses (JSA) for the year.” A graded scale often works best. If the goal is to conduct 100 JSAs and a supervisor conducts 50, then that supervisor gets a percentage of the goal.

Don’t focus solely on quantitative results, though. The flip side of that — the softer, qualitative stuff — is equally as important and supervisors should be evaluated on it. Dan Flinta, CIH, CSP, senior occupational safety & health specialist for Indianapolis Power & Light, stresses evaluating supervisors’ contribution to what he calls the “unseen cultural shift.” This includes the:
  • way employees take pride in their work;
  • employee morale;
  • union-management openness to communicate and make positive changes;
  • ways that employees can affect their work environment; and
  • ways that safety can be an acceptable way of life — both at work and at home.
In other words, you are evaluating the supervisor on his or her efforts to foster a safety culture.

Coming up short
It can’t all be bonuses and pats on the back where safety is concerned. In addition to that, there must be consequences for line supervisors who do not meet their safety responsibilities.

One approach, of course, is in-line with the performance appraisal and yearly bonus discussed earlier. If the supervisor fails to meet his or her goals, it should be reflected in the year-end bonus or merit increase. Another approach is to charge back the costs of accidents to the responsible department. This directly impacts the department’s budget and gets department managers’ attention. This can do wonders for shifting focus to prevention of incidents.

No magic pill
There is no magic pill for getting supervisors involved in impacting employee behavior. Much will depend on the culture of the workplace and how supervisors are selected and trained. What works in one organization may not necessarily work in another. The key is giving it some thought and effort. Ensure that your supervisors are out there observing and providing feedback — and setting the tone.