In “Cool Hand Luke,” the chain gang warden (Strother Martin) kicked Luke (Paul Newman) down a hill saying, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

That sentiment echoes in my ears during every safety audit and training seminar I have conducted in almost every state in the USA. Whether from management to labor or vice versa, the story in the same: No one seems to listen — so what’s the use? “The use” is simple— if we don’t listen to each other, we do so at our peril and we all pay the price.

Paying the price
  • A shift supervisor tells a man near a lithograph line to wear his safety glasses — for the third time this week.
  • In a steel mill, a shift manager tells a woman to tie up her hair and tuck it under her hard hat — again.
  • Conversely, a crew is busy placing six locks on machinery prior to maintenance in compliance with lockout/tagout, only to be told to “hurry up.”
  • A laborer in the roll shop at the hot strip suggests that they use 7/8 inch cable instead of 3/4 inch, which frays more frequently; the boss tells him to shut up and that the thinner cable is just fine because they’ve been doing it that way for years. The result is that this worker never suggests anything again and we lose a valuable asset — a pair of eyes.
There are no “routine” days
Every scenario is true and has been addressed in our “Safety for Supervisors” program. I end every seminar by asking one simple question: “If everyone worked at safety like you do, would it be a better place?” The intent is to train supervisors to sell the idea of safety compliance without using a hammer on someone’s hardhat. Assuming that everyone in a class has had formal training in the pertinent OSHA standards i.e. hazard communications, lockout/ tagout, PPE etc., the important concepts to share with supervisors are perspective and accountability.

During an accident investigation, my friends at OSHA have been trained to ask, “Where is the supervisor?” Once this accountability is understood, it is important for all to acknowledge that every day is a new day on a production floor. THERE IS NO ROUTINE. For example,
  • an experienced line operator is out sick, or
  • machinery is in “degraded mode” waiting for a replacement part, or
  • someone is working a “double shift”, or
  • a temporary laborer is filling in for someone on vacation.
All are aberrations to the routine, all are safety concerns, and all require personal attention. The last case of a temporary laborer sticks in my mind. During a safety audit, I asked a young man what he would do in the event of a hydraulic leak. He replied, “Beats the hell out of me; I’m just a laborer.” I asked the supervisor what training temporary help receives, to which he replied, “Someone spends a little time with him.” He wasn’t sure who that someone was.

Adjusting to realities
My suggestion to anyone addressing these situa- tions is fourfold:

1 — A supervisor is charged with how, When, and why things are done. Any one of the above situations will require different adjustments on any given day. The average person will resist change; hence, the supervisor has to “sell” the adjustments.

2 — With my experience in naval aviation, I’m a proponent of checklists and logs. I recommend logs for communication between shifts and checklists for both veterans and less experienced workers. For example, a night shift electrician once rewired a production line through different disconnect boxes and failed to tell anyone; hence, the lockout program was null and void — with no one informed.

3 — Supervisors are reminded that they have experience, authority and, most important, rapport. Rapport is that understanding of what motivates an individual and is the most important of the three because it dictates how we communicate with each person on the crew. The important concept here is that one size does not fit all people. When I once proclaimed that some people respond best to encouragement and a pat on the back, while others need a swift kick, I was surprised to discover that half the class admitted to needing the kick.

4 — If you don’t have rapport, you can achieve it by knowing your people and blending. Blending is simply looking, acting and sounding like your crew, before you try to redirect them. If they are loud, be loud; if they speak softly, speak softly; if they are kneeling near machinery, kneel. Only after you adopt someone’s posture can you lead them away from it.

Going the extra mile
Knowing that I usually wear a bright iridescent orange hardhat, a crane operator, who was the epitome of discontent, once told me that upon his sighting me in his part of the mill, he would blow his air horn to alert the others to do things safely and right because I was nearby and watching. I simply asked, “Why do you need me there to do the right thing?” This is precisely what should happen with an effective supervisor. Their mere existence and high expectations should be sufficient to get everyone to their level of safety program compliance. It takes effort and work.

An extremely effective supervisor at a silica steel line once observed a worker not wearing his gloves — again. He had reminded this man many times before, and being late in the day, he passed by thinking that he was just too tired to say anything. However, he stopped a few paces later, reflecting that severely cut hands used to be a common malady with that type of steel before the gloves were adopted. Additionally, he felt that if that man butchered his hands, he would feel personally responsible. Naturally, he did an “about face” and adjusted the man’s thinking — with a kick, because he had established rapport and knew this man expected it.

All too often I’ve been asked whether I am on the side of management or labor. The answer is simple — I’m on the side of no one getting hurt on the job. I pray we all feel the same.