Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Supervisors: The Safety Culture Pipeline: In Many Organizations, the Supervisor Determines the Safety Culture. So Why Do So Few Companies Make the Necessary Investment to Help Them Perform Their Jobs as Well as Possible?

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Supervisors: The Safety Culture Pipeline: In Many Organizations, the Supervisor Determines the Safety Culture. So Why Do So Few Companies Make the Necessary Investment to Help Them Perform Their Jobs as Well as Possible?

Article excerpt

Supervision has never been an easy job. With all this talk about excellence, competitiveness, "world class" this and "global" that, with simultaneous pressure to lean out staffs and get by efficiently with as few supervisors as possible, the job of a supervisor is more challenging than ever. It's also just as important as ever, or more so. The supervisor is the pipeline between management's good intentions and the workers who are expected to act on those intentions. Treating the job of supervisor with the appropriate care, concern and respect requires a system that encourages the best possible supervisory performance.

Being an OSHA safety engineer and later safety consultant has given me a doorway into the daily operations of hundreds of businesses in manufacturing, service industries and construction. For someone who is naturally interested in how things work, the frequent workplace visits for inspection assignments and to work with clients were golden opportunities.

One thing that I saw repeatedly was that the title "supervisor" was not respected enough to require any experience or training. This is a shame, and somewhat puzzling considering the importance of the supervisor. Don't get me wrong; most people I have seen assigned to supervisory jobs have had lots of previous experience and training. It just isn't in the supervision of people. Supervision is a job where it is common to see people asked to do very important, difficult things without job-specific training and with little experience. Supervisors are given lots of safety responsibility but many have too little training, encouragement and accountability to do the job well.

You'd think something was really wrong if an important position was filled by a person with no relevant experience of education, like a farm boy tossed into a pond to learn how to swim. Certainly, the company's tax accountant,comptroller and CFO all had to have relevant back-grounds before they were hired into those jobs. They, after all, protect the company's finances.

You would probably be surprised to see someone hired without experience for one of these "important" roles, and expected to learn on the job. However, that's how many supervisory jobs are filled. (Actually, that is how some "safety coordinator" duties are handed out as well, but that's a topic for another article). In some opinions, "supervisor" is the most important job in any operation. It doesn't always get treated that way.

Training Needed

It's easy to understand why a company would reward a good, experienced operator with a supervisory job. Once someone has proven their skills operating plant equipment, for example, they should be a great resource for watching over other, less skilled people doing the same jobs. Of course, the supervisor has so much paperwork to do that personally running any equipment is out of the question except for rare occasions.

There is a false concept circulating that supervisory skills, people-management talent and leadership abilities are somehow genetic traits that need not be learned. This concept is somewhat ironic when this idea resides in the head of a senior manager with a management degree. With regard to safety-related knowledge, the assumption seems to be that safety is common sense, or that job experience has taught enough to a person who has been around long enough that he or she can be a candidate for a supervisory job.

The hardest part of the job, and the part that takes the most time, concerns managing the people. This is the most important part as well. A good supervisor can positively affect how people feel about the company and how motivated they are, which surely has great value for safety efforts. We need to invest in our supervisors because their jobs are too important to treat carelessly. Supervisors that merely base their management style on their own previous supervisors may not have any of the important skills that can help them aim for excellence. …

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