How good an organisation’s supervisor is and the types of leadership behaviours they use affect overall safety performance. We review a paper that looks at the role that supervisors play in safety leadership. This paper describes an interview study of 69 supervisors recruited from the UK construction industry. The study examined influences on supervisors’ safety leadership behaviours including role overload, production demands, formal procedures and workforce characteristics.
What Did They Ask the Supervisors?
The study sought to identify the contextual factors that supervisors perceive as being a help, or hindrance, to their engagement in safety leadership. Focus groups were used to collect the data, and comprised of supervisors from different trades, employing companies, and levels of experience.
Examples of focus group questions included:
- ‘‘in your opinion, what defines good safety leadership?’’
- ‘‘what factors help supervisors to engage in good safety leadership?’’
- ‘‘what factors make it difficult for (i.e., hinder) supervisors to engage in good safety leadership?’’
What Are Good Leadership Behaviours?
Supervisors emphasised the importance of coaching, being available and being approachable. ‘Talking’ was considered the best method of relationship building. Supervisors believed that it was important for employees to feel that they could consult them on any issue, especially those regarding safety.
See our article on what we can learn from the safest organisations.
Factors That Hinder Good Leadership Behaviours
Multiple, and often conflicting, role responsibilities hurt supervisors’ efforts to engage in safety leadership. These include role overload, production pressure and workforce characteristics. The supervisors generally regarded safety as a distinct component that sits alongside production. They identified administration, specifically paperwork, as a hindrance.
They felt that spending time with employees helped them to prevent accidents. Working alongside employees helped to identify training needs and coach employees. Production pressures, subcontractor safety attitudes, inadequately skilled employees, and language barriers all hindered their efforts to engage in safety leadership.
Factors That Assist Good Leadership Behaviours
Two areas that support supervisors’ efforts to engage in safety leadership are social support and autonomy. Safety as a top priority of the organisation and the expectation that this was part of their role helped supervisors. Having support from other supervisors and a supportive manager was crucial because it gave them confidence that their actions would be ‘‘backed-up’’.
Supervisors as Effective Leaders
Supervisors recognised the importance of coaching, consultation, respect and effective safety systems. However, role demands and production pressures compromised their efforts to engage in safety leadership behaviours. Formal procedures concerning discipline that impacted their ‘‘power to’’ act in certain ways were a barrier. Autonomy in how they lead their teams in safety where supervisors can address, or change, a situation was critical in encouraging their efforts to engage in safety leadership.
This study shows that supervisors’ safety leadership is just one of several responsibilities in their role. Production pressures, paperwork, proof of compliance, inadequately skilled employees and language barriers, hinder subcontractor attitudes to safety. But critically, the biggest hindrance to their efforts in engaging in safety leadership behaviours is when they feel that their actions are not supported by other supervisors and managers. Autonomy in their role is crucial.
How Can You Support Your Supervisors?
Supporting supervisor’s in their roles and building their capacity is an important component of solutions to protect workers. Supervisor support is especially important in high-risk workplaces, where it’s challenging to remove hazards. Organisations need to:
- Provide training interventions around supervisory leadership that emphasises safety in all activities and relationship management skills.
- Train their supervisors to develop skills such as active listening, assertiveness, paraphrasing, reflecting, conflict analysis, coaching and mediation.
- Extend the supervisory role to advising, coaching and nurturing, and not simply disciplining.
- Ensure supervisors are trained in hazard perception skills so that they can encourage safe practices from those they supervise.
- Support supervisors to make the difficult decisions they do daily.
- Lead from the top and do not tolerate bullying, intimidation and disrespectful communications.
- Give supervisors room to do their jobs, make mistakes, and learn.
- Actively demonstrate that supervisors are highly valued members of the workforce who perform an essential function in managing workplace relationships.
- Ensure supervisor job descriptions are comprehensive with clear expectations.
- Ensure there are clear policies, procedures and systems.
See our article on the importance of supervisors in your workplace safety efforts.
Engaging Training Influences Work Health and Safety Behaviour
Engaging training influences work health and safety behaviour to support your supervisor’s efforts to maintain safety. The Tap into Safety training platform is available online and smart devices and offers interactive and engaging workplace health and safety training.
As a business, we are embracing the enhancements in technology. Our training isn’t numerous PowerPoint slides shown to a group of employees, followed by a paper questionnaire at the end. We use real workplace photographic, panoramic examples that workers relate to because it shows their work sites. We are using animation and gaming technology to enhance training to engage employees and deliver training in 15 minutes or less.
With our flexible per-use ‘credits’ model pricing, you only pay for what you use. You can purchase any number of credits at any time, that you can use within 12 months before they expire. There are no subscription fees or lock-in contracts.
The study investigated the critical influences on supervisors’ safety leadership behaviours. Key areas of the study included role overload, production demands, formal procedures and workforce characteristics. The conclusions were that production pressures, subcontractor safety attitudes, inadequately skilled employees, and language barriers all hindered their efforts to engage in safety leadership. Providing supervisors with autonomy in their role is crucial and ongoing support is critical.