Why is a positive supervisor-employee relationship so important to worker safety?

Why is a positive supervisor-employee relationship so important to worker safety?

Jill James

Jill James

Chief Safety Officer

Jill James brings an unrivaled perspective on risk, regulation and liability. With 14 years of experience as a Senior OSHA Safety Investigator with the State of Minnesota, and nearly a decade in the private sector as a safety program manager, Jill is a passionate advocate for training ROI.

Why is a positive supervisor-employee relationship so important to worker safety?

Relationships play a huge role in the culture of a workplace, especially when it comes to safety. Jill James, our resident safety consultant and former OSHA Safety Investigator, fills us in on how a positive relationship between supervisors and employees can decrease the number of work-related accidents.

Q.  Why is a positive supervisor-employee relationship so important to worker safety?

A.  It all boils down to The Golden Rule - treating one another as one would treat oneself.

Think about it.  If being “positive” or “upbeat” or “happy” are the principles guiding teamwork between supervisors and employees, there is still room for a fractured, distrustful relationship.

Take this scenario for example. Reynaldo works in a sanitation job. One day he told his supervisor that the work boots he was issued to keep his feet dry and provide slip resistance didn’t fit correctly. His supervisor, Kim, told him she would get him the correct size right away. 

A month later she came with the correct size and handed them to him with a grand smile on her face, enthusiastically saying, “Here you go, Reynaldo. I really appreciate your work!”

What do you think the cloud caption above Reynaldo’s head was saying at that point?

Healthy human relationships are built on trust and honesty.  If an employee can’t trust their supervisor’s word, whether it has to do with paychecks, scheduling, equipment that needs replacing, timeliness, or training, why would they adhere to safety rules, seek to maintain a safe work environment, wear PPE, or report their injuries in a timely manner?  They may not.

Rather than building a cohesive, productive work team, supervisor’s like Kim may be contributing to the problem, leading to an employee who:

  • Decides to work alone and doesn’t ask for help when they need assistance, increasing injury risk because they feel they are “in it alone.”
  • Does not report injuries when they are still minor and can be addressed quickly, instead waiting until they are serious problems, increasing workers compensation costs and leading to potential time away from work. 
  • Decides it’s not worth asking for needed equipment and works with broken or dangerous devices, putting himself and others at risk of injury.
  • Tells coworkers and community members that his employing company doesn’t care about its people, increasing turn-over rates and decreasing the applicant pool.
  • Does not feel valued, causing them to be disengaged and unproductive.

There is also a lot to be said about the simple act of listening. I once was chatting with a location manager and he remarked that his district manager didn’t value him or the team of 10 people the location manager supervised.  I asked him what it would take to feel valued.  He said, “A picture of my work team to hang on the wall at work and a copy of that picture to send home with each team member. I think of my work team as a family and I want them all to know we work together to take care of one another and produce a good product. I want my employees to be able to take our picture home and show their home families their work family, and talk about what we do together every day.” 

Try it.  If you are in a supervisory or management role and struggling with safety or work relationships, ask an employee what it would take for them to feel valued or to build trust with you. Maybe it’s timeliness, maybe it’s replacing something broken, maybe it’s listening to an idea, or maybe it’s simply a picture to hang on the wall.

So, the answer is merely to be nice? Be humane? Listen?

But what about production? What about getting the work done; sustaining and growing the bottom line? 

The skeptics among you- those that have dealt with employees that have lied, stole, faked injuries, and destroyed PPE or tools to get out of work - have legitimate history and reason to be skeptical. However, does the one-bad-apple rule really apply to the masses?

Smart hiring practices and recruiters skilled in “bad apple” identification are worth their weight in gold.  As are internal supervisor development programs where certain values can be instilled and mentored among supervisors.

Bad apples exist. They always will. But through intelligent hiring practices, genuinely listening to employees, and exercising the Golden Rule, we will see more productive, cohesive, healthy, and safe work teams.