Five ways supervisors sabotage safety efforts

by on April 28, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

Is one of your work groups struggling with safety performance?

If so, see if the supervisor has fallen into one of these five management traps, identified by leadership expert Glenn Shepard:

1. Do they still think they’re one of the boys (or girls)?
Authority changes relationships, and that includes business friendships. If supervisors are still “one of the boys/girls,” they’ll undercut their authority (and the company’s), confuse their employees and find it difficult to lead.

Two ways that mentality affects safety performance:

  • employees may blow off safety instructions (thinking the person lacks authority), and
  • crew members may not come to the boss with safety issues (figuring the person won’t do anything about it).

Even experienced supervisors who have worked closely with others for years fall into this trap. If you see this occurring, remind the supervisor that managers must:

  • be willing to be unpopular
  • prefer respect to popularity, and
  • be willing to do what others won’t.

That means, to some extent, wearing their “game face” all the time. They need to direct people on safety, even if they have a warm working relationship with veterans. That is, they have to be willing to draw the line and insist on compliance.

Key: Make sure supervisors are prepared to accept this social distance.

2. Do they lack confidence when making decisions?
Employees want to be told the right thing to do. They expect people who’ve been elevated to a position of authority and credibility to demonstrate confidence.

If workers see the manager is confident, they’ll have more confidence in carrying out his or her decisions. Smart managers know that when it’s time to make a decision, waffling or hesitancy can be deadly. Top-performing managers know it’s often better to make a wrong decision early and adapt later, than to hem-and- haw or wait too long.

Example: Two crew chiefs argue about the safest and quickest way to set up fall protection. The site superintendent has to make a decision between conflicting advice – he or she is better off assessing the situation and choosing. Then monitor the situation and if warranted, adapt the fall protection plan from there.

3. Are they prepared to hold people accountable?
Effective management and supervision depends on stepping in at the right time – no matter how you feel at the time or what you’re doing. Holding people accountable and being firm goes with the territory.

People who tend to defer to others, or who aren’t prepared to intervene, probably will struggle. Along these lines, some new managers think they’ll drive away good employees by being firm.

Keys: Consistency and fairness. Good employees will not mind tough performance standards, but they will notice – and remember – inconsistency and unfairness.

Example: A trenching crew puts spoils piles too close to the trench walls – a commonly cited OSHA violation. In those cases, supervisors need to be willing to:

  • step in and not be “one of the boys,”
  • make a decision to temporarily stop work (that is, upset the apple cart), and
  • hold people accountable – issue verbal warnings if the spoils piles are placed intentionally or carelessly.

4. Are they expecting too much from employees?
When supervisors hold people accountable to standards, those standards need to be reasonable. It helps to know the difference between high standards and perfectionism.

Highly skilled technical employees who’ve worked their way into supervisory positions, for example, may have much stronger skill sets than your average employee.

Example: The supervisor may have been a stellar performing electrician, able to quickly identify circuits, understand exactly what needs to be isolated, and perform the task safely and well in far less time than the average employee he supervises.

The supervisor, if he or she doesn’t understand that, may push employees beyond what’s reasonable. Employees may feel, in turn, that the supervisor has unrealistic expectations and then take shortcuts when he or she isn’t around.

5. Do they avoid firing people who’ve earned the boot?
The last stage of accountability involves termination. It’s gut-wrenching to fire people; no one likes to do it. But the question is this – will supervisors do it when necessary? Remind them that, in reality, workers fire themselves by behaving inappropriately.

Train managers to conduct ongoing performance evaluations and follow progressive discipline policies so that a firing is never a surprise. If the discipline policy clearly warns the employee, “Next time you fail to tie off, you’re going to be let go,” the supervisor must be willing to follow through.

Source: “Seven Things Managers Must Get,” audioconference, Glenn Shepard Seminars,

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