Chris Ross headshot
Chris Ross, CSP, CPLP
The Engagement Effect
The Associated General Contractors of Alaska logo
Safety Report
Chris Ross headshot
Chris Ross, CSP, CPLP
The Engagement Effect
The Associated General Contractors of Alaska logo
Safety Report
Supervisors, Safety, and Human Factors
By Chris Ross, CSP, CPLP, President, The Engagement Effect

recently conducted a webinar attended by more than 900 people called “Safety and the Supervisor: Developing Frontline Leadership Skills to Improve Safety Outcomes.” During the Q&A session at the end of the presentation, participants asked more than 200 questions. I’ve addressed some of the most common questions received. The answers share insights for anyone interested in health and safety, employee engagement, and improving supervisors’ ability to influence safety outcomes.

How do you ensure the management level of your organization takes responsibility for everyone’s safety?
The answer to that is the same as the answer to the question, “How do you get management to take responsibility for anything in the organization?” In my experience, most senior leaders want to do the right thing with respect to safety but they don’t always understand how.

The easiest way to achieve your goal is to set performance expectations, measure results and deliverables, and hold people accountable for activities and outcomes.

Taking responsibility requires buy-in and commitment. That has to come from the heart. Safety and health folks can help a bit with techniques, but caring is an innate human factor. The trick is to unlock the motivators for these folks and unleash their passion for the safety of their workers 24/7.

How do you implement safety procedures when senior leaders don’t walk the talk concerning compliance—or worse, disrupt safety efforts?
That’s a good question—and one that’s tough to answer. Part of it depends on your relationship with senior management and your willingness to have difficult conversations. Having those tough conversations is a skill that can be learned and practiced. If handled correctly, they can resolve problems and build stronger relationships between parties, enhance creativity, foster engagement, develop organizational learning loops and increase performance. This is just as true for challenging, safety-related discussions as it is for any other difficult conversation.

There are myriad skills and strategies for becoming more adept at having difficult conversations, including:

Managing the gap between stimulus and response (e.g., take a deep breath). This is a well-known but very difficult technique to use. It requires self-control and practice to not let others push our buttons. When we listen first to understand, the dynamics of communication are improved considerably.

Working on yourself first. The key is to think about what we are truly trying to accomplish, recognize (and perhaps inventory) our own skill set, and then take specific actions to improve.

Understanding the conflict continuum of two dimensions of conflict behavior—recognizing how to use assertiveness and cooperation and knowing how and when to use our own conflict preferences.

Using proven negotiation/conflict management techniques, including going to the balcony, listening to the other side, separating the person from the issue/problem, exploring interests versus positions, taking steps to maintain the relationship, and understanding how to create win/win agreements.

Implementing strategies for resolving disagreements, such as properly describing the conflict, focusing on underlying causes, looking to the future, appreciating the human factors involved (organizationally and individually), taking a systems view, and using mental models.

It all begins with developing a dialogue, finding out what the underlying motivations are, and gaining commitment for change. It’s worth noting that change rarely happens spontaneously, and in organizations, it often requires someone willing to have a difficult conversation or two in order to change the company’s direction.

You can also build a culture of looking out for each other with human-factors training that establishes a common language, common goals, and regular communication. When it comes to safety, remember that there is tremendous value in getting the organization to adopt more accountability or make their dedication to safety more visible and/or rigorous. It’s worth the effort to have the conversations required to bring about change.

What is a solution to reduce risk and build a prevention strategy for human factors?
I think this question is worth thinking about this in its own right, as well as in the context of COVID. Human factors are ever-present in our daily lives and can increase risk in all kinds of situations. They get further magnified by external events and conditions—such as COVID. An organization needs to be sure to address human factors for everyone involved in any given situation, so they understand the fact that certain states of mind can influence their actions and decisions. Frequent discussions can help people identify what they are experiencing, such as frustration, anxiety, fear, rushing, family issues, monetary concerns, and more.

Address these factors on a regular basis through dialogue and discussion. Ask people what is going on, encourage them to use tools like self-triggering, observe best practices by looking at others, and to help people to develop new habits.

How do you minimize human factors in an organization?
This is a surprisingly complicated question. On an individual level, it’s an issue of both minimizing human factors—because they are always going to be present to some degree—and teaching workers to recognize and manage human factors. Doing so requires dedicated training, practice, and management support. If supervisors and workers can get better at using the internal feedback loop, then they can recognize the factors that are precursors to potential incidents.

At a broader organizational level, human factors can be reduced by making improvements to engineering, systems, work processes, and teams of people. If organizations can get better at identifying system/organizational human factors by using the organizational feedback loop, then the organization can become much better at learning from not only mistakes but also successes.

What’s a good resource to help improve supervisor communication skills?
There are many terrific resources, beginning with commercial products and vendors such as Franklin Covey, Development Dimensions International, Achieve Global, and countless others who provide communication skills training and coaching. There is also a multitude of independent consultants who offer very good training. Another great option is local community colleges, many of which offer skills training for workers.

For safety-specific communications, SafeStart has developed training that, among other things, will make supervisors and frontline leaders much stronger communicators, especially when it comes to safety.

There is another aspect to safety communication that most programs don’t provide and one that is unique to SafeStart. The program provides easy, non-punitive, positive ways to talk about safety and human error by establishing a common language, common patterns, and common storytelling elements. Combined, these elements make communication much more effective, more comfortable, more open, and more frequent.

In your experience, what best helps people to openly participate in accident investigations?
First, there must be an active effort to reduce or eliminate a climate of blame. People should feel free from repercussions for reporting and discussing incidents. This is a tone and official policy that must be set by senior leaders. It should be clear to everyone that a climate of open and positive communication is the norm. Then, senior leaders need to hold themselves and managers/supervisors accountable for maintaining that climate of open communication by recognizing and rewarding people (by verbally praising them, not offering monetary incentives) for participating not only in investigations, but also in reporting near misses, offering improvement suggestions, and engaging in safety meetings.
Is discipline or reward more effective?
The best you get with discipline is compliance. And compliance is the lowest possible level of engagement. If you want to drive stronger engagement, there must be positive recognition. Countless studies have shown that one of the greatest motivators is immediate positive feedback from the direct supervisor to reinforce desired behaviors/outcomes. It’s probably the single most effective tool supervisors can use.

Discipline creates a climate of fear and distrust, which leads to less communication, decreased levels of engagement, and under-reporting. Discipline is certainly one tool to be considered for repeated, willful offenses, but it usually isn’t the first tool that should be used.

As Abraham Maslow said in 1966, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Supervisors should have a number of tools in their repertoire for coaching, communication, and engagement so that they’re not reliant on only using a hammer.

The Engagement Effect, a division of Ross Performance Group, LLC, offers solutions in organizational results, safety and health, leadership, talent management, and culture change. Learn more about us at or email the author at