Safety depends on open communication between management and employees. Good communications create a feedback loop that encourages employees to provide accurate and honest information about safety. In essence, workers who have confidence in their supervisor and feel they can communicate honestly will be more likely to discuss safety and report hazards.
The term communication is defined as the imparting or exchanging of information or sharing of ideas. Methods of communication include speaking or writing by a sender, or listening or reading by the receiver. Most communication is oral, spoken words, with one party speaking and others listening. Non-verbal and visual methods are also used regularly to communicate.
Over the years I have focused a lot on the importance of employee safety training, which is required by law. OSHA says employers must train workers how to perform their work safely. OSHA’s Safety Training and Education regulation 1926.20(b)(2) says, “The employer shall instruct each employee in the recognition and avoidance of unsafe conditions and the regulations applicable to his work environment to control or eliminate any hazards or exposure to illness or injury.”
Learning to Lead
Although many companies are providing and, in some cases, requiring managers, including foremen, to take OSHA 10- and 30-hour safety training programs, many are not providing management training for newly promoted supervisors/foremen. OSHA 10- and 30-hour or similar safety training are all great but not required by OSHA. OSHA does not require any form of management skills training, such as employee relations and communications. However, leaders should have the opportunity to take both safety and management skills training to help them be effective managers. Even managers who have been in position for years can benefit from management training.
Do your front-line managers and supervisors (foremen) routinely communicate about safety with the workers they supervise? Likely, you have some who communicate regularly while others only do so when they need to give assignments or directions.
Workers may be afraid to communicate safety violations to managers because they are afraid of repercussions. If that’s the case, they haven’t been informed that retaliation is illegal. The bottom line is if they are not comfortable with management because there is a lack of communications, these hazards will not be reported.
Open communication is critical to safety. Managers who routinely and openly communicate with their workers about safety issues have safer worksites because workers realize that safety really does matter. Workers on these sites will be more likely to discuss or report unsafe situations. It is imperative that your front-line leadership encourages and listens to what employees have to say about safety. When told about a hazard or situation that could be dangerous, leaders must take reports seriously and take immediate action to investigate and fix the problem.
In the construction industry we often promote supervisors from the ranks because the worker is good at his/her craft, has years of experience, and has been an exemplary employee. Overall the individual has earned and deserves a promotion. The problem is many of these individuals have been promoted into management roles having never supervised employees. Many have no idea how to communicate with workers because they have never had any management training.
Like any other position at your company, managers need to be trained to perform their jobs. One of the most important skills that should be prioritized in that training is effective communication. Additionally, effective managers need training in employee relations, evaluating worker skills and performance, addressing performance/safety issues, hazard awareness, training workers, and more. As leaders learn the skills necessary to be good managers they will also learn to better identify, analyze and control hazards.
Another situation that some leaders face is communicating with workers who speak little or no English. Since OSHA expects employers to train and educate workers in a language that they can understand, your company may need a plan.
There are training programs available that can be used to help leaders learn management skills including how to better communicate with employees. For example, NUCA’s Essential Skills for Crew Leaders Training is a two-day, intensive course that trains workers to be effective leaders and communicators so they can provide clear directions, and plan and schedule the crew’s work to maximize safety, production and profit.
An effective crew leader must have specific job skills to run a crew. The individual must also be aware of all applicable safety regulations and must know how to manage the crew. With proper training to properly and effectively communicate with workers, managers at all levels can improve the safety culture within their company.
George Kennedy is Vice President of Safety for the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) and is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP).