Let's start with the basics. If you look up the word supervise in Webster's Dictionary, you'll see that it means: "to look over and direct the work and performance of."
When OSHA conducts an accident investigation they may cite the employer for a "lack of supervision." They are generally saying that one or more persons who represent the employer are not adequately overseeing work being accomplished.
It's extremely important for a supervisor to provide adequate oversight so he or she may uncover hazardous conditions (materials, tools, equipment, environment) and unsafe work practices before they injure or kill a worker. Unsafe work practices, the cause of most accidents, can be effectively controlled only if the supervisor or other person in charge is out on the production floor, watching work processes.
If the supervisor is stuck back in the office all-day-every-day, how can he or she detect hazards? When the supervisor does uncover an unsafe work hazard, he or she can make sure it is eliminated, or exposure to the hazard is minimized.
If you find it impossible to oversee work on a regular basis, what step(s) can you take to make sure unsafe conditions and practices are discovered in a timely manner? Make sure you delegate that authority to one of your employees. If a two-person work crew is sent out on a project, make sure one of them is a lead-person with safety oversight responsibilities.
OK, you are providing adequate oversight, but what steps do you take when you uncover hazardous conditions or unsafe work practices? It's important that you do the right thing quickly to effectively eliminate or reduce exposure to a hazard. The approach you take when pointing out unsafe work procedures with your employees will, to a large extent, determine your success. For example, read the following scenario:
Bob is working on a large mixing machine which should have been properly locked out before beginning the maintenance. During your daily walk-through inspection, you notice he is working hard inside the mixing unit, and you notice the mixer is not locked out. Bob could be seriously injured at any time. You approach Bob, and consider what you are going to say to him.
The right message to send is that you are concerned about his safety, the safety of other workers, and company property. In this case, you would probably tell Bob to stop work and get out of the mixing unit immediately. You would want to find out why he did not lockout the equipment, but only after expressing concern for his safety. If Bob does not believe you are concerned about him, and are only "out to get him," he will react defensively to protect himself. You won't get the truth out of him.
Find out the real reason. You may be surprised to find out that "you" may be part of the problem. Maybe Bob hasn't been properly trained, or he is under stress to "just get it done" at any cost. He might have been trained by an individual who did not value lockout procedures, and this attitude was adopted by Bob. You will find out that, most of the time, a missing or inadequate step in a process is the root cause. Don't play the blame game: go after the system cause and fix it.
Leaders understand the power sincere recognition has in creating a successful relationship with their employees. Employees should be recognized for safety whenever their performance meets or exceeds expectations.
But what are the safety behaviors you want to recognize?
Three general OSHA-mandated activities or behaviors employees should be recognized for are:
Two other behaviors may not be mandated, but are certainly encouraged:
Each of these behaviors marks an employee as a professional. Complying with safety rules indicates a worker values safety, and that they have the personal discipline to follow important company policies. Reporting hazards in the workplace may save lives and substantially reduce accident costs. Reporting injuries, no matter how minor, as soon as possible is highly professional because it minimizes the negative impact on both the worker and the employer. A win-win situation. You'll learn more about the effective application of consequences in Module 7.
Believe it or not, in America today, some companies do not recognize any of the above appropriate safety behaviors. They recognize employees for a common inappropriate behavior that unfortunately may be repeated frequently- and results in long term increased workers' compensation premiums. What is that behavior?
You may have guessed it.... The most common employee inappropriate behavior practiced by employees is failing to report injuries. When companies set up reactive incentive programs that reward a group of workers for zero reported injuries over a given period, peer pressure to withhold injury reports develops.
The greater the rewards, the stronger the peer pressure. This occurs because the injury may be seen by others as a threat to their own success. "Hey, we want our pizza party. Don't mess up our chances." You can tell when your company may have a reactive incentive program when the banners go up declaring "80 Bazillion Work Hours Without a Reported Injury!" When the number of injuries becomes the key measurement, you can be sure there are people at work who are really hurting, but will not report their injury because they want to be loyal co-workers who don't ruin it for everyone else.
A student told OSHAcademy director, Steve Geigle, in a training session about how her son did not report his finger being amputated because he didn't want to spoil the departments safety record. How he "hid" it from his supervisor, we don't know... But, that's how bad it can get!
The problem with this situation is that, yes, you do reduce the number of OSHA 300 log entries, but each recorded injury is usually more severe. And, the severity of injury has more impact on workers compensation premiums than the number of OSHA 301 Injury and Illness Incident Reports submitted. Consequently, you may have fewer reported injuries but higher workers compensation costs. So, in your effort to reduce costs through a reactive incentive program strategy, you actually increase costs.
Inappropriate safety behaviors may occur at any level of the organization. An example of an inappropriate supervisor level safety behavior would be allowing employees to use unsafe practices in order to meet production goals. Or, supervisors may simply ignore company safety rules. These very inappropriate behaviors send very clear messages to employees that safety is not as important as production. These behaviors are more likely to occur when the supervisor is working under pressure to produce in a fear-driven culture that creates a conflict between production and safety. Or, supervisors may think safety is the job of the safety director. Messages sent to employees in such a culture are likely to be similar to these:
In this culture, when job security is on the line, working fast will take priority over working safe. However, in a world-class safety culture, job security depends on working safe, not fast.
Improving supervision is both a science and an art. You can learn all the technical aspects of supervision (the science), but only experience, with all its successes and failures, will improve your skills to that of a true artist. Jump here for a few tips on improving supervision.
Does a controlling leadership style, born from a lack of trust in employees, work in the safety arena? Not usually. It is based on incorrect assumptions about human nature.
Some of these assumptions include:
Management makes decisions, drives the process, and organizes people and production only for economic gain.
Workers must modify their behavior to fit the needs of the organization. They must be directed, controlled, even coerced in this effort.
Management must be actively involved to prevent passive, resistant, or counterproductive employee behavior. Employees must be persuaded, rewarded, punished, or controlled to prevent them from being indolent, slothful, and just plain lazy. Because employees lack ambition, dislike responsibility, and prefer to be led, management's task is to prod employees along.
On the other hand, correct assumptions are expressed in what may be called a "tough caring" leadership style that reflects a no-nonsense approach to safety as a result of a genuine concern for employee safety.
These correct assumptions include:
Workers are not passive and lazy by nature, but have become so due to experience and socialization in organizations. When motivated they are capable of self-directed work behavior and decision making.
Employees seek safety, job security, responsibility, and recognition. They want to develop a high degree of pride in the work they accomplish. Management's challenge is to provide employees with the means to recognize their potential, and work at the highest possible level.
Management organizes the workplace to best provide employees with the resources they need to be safe and achieve their own goals and objectives while supporting organizational success.
Adequate supervision means proactively developing a workplace culture that prevents injuries and illnesses. It's the combination of effective management and sound leadership. Because safety is critical to both the welfare of the employee and the company, only a tough caring leadership style, effectively adopted by management, will benefit the company safety and health culture in the long term.
Watch this short WorkSafeBC videos about supervisor responsibilities. It should make you think.
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