There are many risks when handling dry bulk materials, and a company’s safety record has become an important performance metric for those of us in leadership. In the past, it was common for plant managers and supervisors to consider employees personally responsible for any errors they may make, and therefore, entirely responsible for their own protection. When workplace accidents occurred, the frontline workers involved were often blamed for whatever losses or injuries took place.
However, years of observation and research have shown us the folly of this “blame the worker” approach, uncovering the complex systemic issues that contribute to workplace safety. Companies now recognize the critical role that a facility’s leadership plays in maintaining a safe workplace and promoting an effective safety culture among their teams. By shifting our focus from the workers involved in an accident to a root cause analysis of what went wrong, the influence of supervisors and plant managers is often revealed.
Who Is Responsible?
When a workplace accident occurs, the first question asked is often, “Who is responsible?” There exists a fundamental psychological tendency among humans to attribute other peoples’ misfortunes to bad choices or personality traits. As we shift from person-centered to systems-centered approaches to managing safety, it’s no longer sufficient to simply single out an employee or equipment issue for blame and declare the problem solved.
If the underlying circumstances that led to the accident aren’t corrected, it’s only a matter of time before another incident will occur. Creating a workplace environment and culture that actively promotes safety takes time and focus – and ultimately it’s the decisions of supervisors and managers that will determine whether these efforts succeed or fail.
For all the focus on improving safety conditions at a systems level, long standing industry attitudes can be slow to change. Instead of simply disciplining or terminating employees in response to serious accidents, leadership must take a comprehensive approach and seek to understand root causes so that they can improve plant safety moving forward.
In the wake of an accident, management and supervisors should focus on:
- Accepting responsibility
- Insisting on investigations
- Completing a root cause analysis
- Implementing effective corrective action
- Maintaining stringent oversight
In industries where dry bulk materials are stored, handled, transported, or processed, there is often a great deal of inherent risk and little room for error when it comes to operating safely. Managers and supervisors who truly want to make a difference in the lives of their teams embrace their role as safety leaders and seek to implement new ways of recognizing and eliminating unsafe conditions.
Supervisor Safety Attitudes Protect Teams (Or Put Them at Risk)
Safety leaders who embrace what’s been called a “human & organizational performance” approach to safety recognize that humans are error-prone and that there are often multiple interrelated factors that contribute to a workplace accident. Good safety leaders work to actively engineer potential hazards out of their work environments, rather than just telling employees to “be safe”.
By understanding their important role in accident prevention and using their position to make continuous safety improvements, these leaders develop safer teams with fewer accidents – and the research backs this up. It’s quite telling that industry studies that assess supervisors’ safety attitudes and beliefs have predicted with great accuracy which supervisor would have the most accidents among the workers they oversee in the months ahead.
In investigating why an accident occurred, investigators often uncover dangerous practices and beliefs around safety among staff, from the frontline workers to the supervisors and managers overseeing them. Oftentimes, those in leadership don’t even recognize their attitudes as problematic, because despite giving lip service to safety they haven’t learned and internalized appropriate safety attitudes.
Identifying any workplace where taking shortcuts and ignoring safety policies is the norm, and it’s basically a given that the facility’s managers and supervisors are lacking safety leadership and communication skills. Fortunately, these skills can be learned and developed with appropriate training and accountability.
Leadership Styles Can Also Impact Safety Culture
Even with strong safety values, the method by which managers and supervisors lead their teams can have a big impact on safety outcomes. In 1991, scholars Bruce Avolio and Bernard Bass identified 3 leadership styles, terming them Laissez-faire, Transactional, and Transformational.