The Pivotal Role of the First-Line Supervisor in Leading Safety

Two climbers practising supervisor safety leadership, with one climber helping another up a rocky cliff by pulling on a rope, set against a scenic ocean backdrop at sunset.


In most organisations, the first-line supervisor plays a crucial role in influencing organisational effectiveness through supervisor safety leadership. Acting as a vital link between management and the workforce, supervisors often have longer tenure than managers and frequently oversee the same workgroup for many years. This continuity often grants them more credibility with workers than managers possess. Workers rely on supervisors to interpret organisational priorities and changes, frequently seeking their guidance on the implications of specific management actions.

Supervisors interpret management actions through the lens of their own experience, relaying this information to their teams through directions, informal comments, and reactions to workers’ actions. In many respects, workers perceive the supervisor’s words and deeds as representative of “the company.” Consequently, worker perceptions about the organisation are significantly influenced by their supervisor.

The Supervisor’s Impact on Safety

Supervisors affect safety outcomes in several key ways. First, they influence exposure to hazards by effectively utilising safety-enabling systems and tools such as safety meetings, incident investigations, inspections, audits, and hazard identification and mitigation. The supervisor plays a crucial role in addressing the range of exposures that exist within the workgroup. It is helpful to consider the degree of control that the worker has to perform work safely. At one end of the spectrum are “enabled situations” where the worker has the necessary skills, knowledge, and resources to work safely. At the other end are non-enabled situations where the worker is unable to do the work safely. In between these extremes lie situations of varying degrees of difficulty, where safe work is possible but requires extra time and effort. Supervisors address these different situations by employing various combinations of the tools available to them.

The second way supervisors influence safety is by communicating organisational priorities and values. They do this not only through explicit statements but, more powerfully, through their actions. For instance, if a supervisor insists on following safe procedures despite pressures to expedite operations, it communicates the priority of safety far more effectively than merely stating “Safety is number one” in meetings.

Third, supervisors influence safety through their interactions with individual team members and the group as a whole, affecting the overall tone or climate of the workgroup. A fair and supportive supervisor fosters a positive climate where team members are more likely to take responsibility for safety and look out for one another.

Two workers demonstrating supervisor safety leadership by shaking hands in front of stacked shipping containers, both wearing safety gear including hard hats and reflective vests.

Communication Skills: The Foundation of Supervisor Safety Leadership

Effective communication is fundamental to a supervisor’s effectiveness, yet it is often challenging. Communication involves both sending and receiving messages, which are filtered through our perceptions, needs, and feelings about the situation. This means that the intended message may not always be the one received. Additionally, the faster pace of thinking compared to speaking, listening, reading, or writing can lead to misunderstandings.

Supervisors can improve workgroup effectiveness by ensuring the accuracy of the information they send and receive. This can be achieved by checking for understanding, verifying that workers comprehend the intended message, and ensuring that the supervisor correctly understands what the worker means. Effective communication is an active process that requires effort from all parties involved. However, not all workers are likely to play an active role in ensuring accurate communication, so supervisors must work both ends of the communication.

In a busy workplace, taking additional time to verify the accuracy of communication may seem like a luxury. However, misunderstandings can lead to catastrophic consequences. To ensure understanding, supervisors need confirmation from the workgroup that the message was received correctly. For example, when introducing a new safety procedure, instead of merely asking if there are any questions, supervisors can ask the workgroup to apply the procedure to specific cases. This approach helps assess understanding more effectively.

When on the receiving end, supervisors can improve communication by using active listening skills. Active listening involves concentrating on the key points the other person is making and paraphrasing to verify understanding. Regular use of active listening reduces misunderstandings and demonstrates respect for the worker, fostering goodwill and effective working relationships.

The Power of Strong Working Relationships in Safety Leadership

A long-standing definition of management is getting work done through others. Relationships are a crucial aspect of leadership, and a supervisor with excellent working relationships with team members will be more productive than one who is technically brilliant but lacks good relationships. The quality of supervisor-member relationships varies within a workgroup, but those with the strongest relationships will be more effective over time.

Relationships develop as a form of exchange, starting with the supervisor giving assignments to a new team member. If performance is good, the supervisor gradually grants more latitude, leading to mutual trust and respect. Strong working relationships offer advantages for both the worker and the supervisor, including support from the supervisor, satisfaction with work, access to resources, greater autonomy, open communication, influence on decision-making, and reduced turnover.

Trust is a key element of strong relationships. Team members often feel relatively powerless and uncertain about their status, making them highly alert to incidents that may have meaning regarding their place in the organisation. A trusting relationship allows team members to give the supervisor the benefit of the doubt. Supervisors can improve trust by acting consistently, with integrity, maintaining open communication, considering team members’ needs, and sharing control and participation in decision-making.

Smiling female worker wearing a hard hat and reflective vest, with an older male supervisor clapping in the background, demonstrating effective supervisor safety leadership.

Fair Decision-Making and Its Effects on Safety Leadership

Supervisors make daily decisions that affect their team members’ work lives, including job assignments, work schedules, breaks, vacations, overtime, discipline, rewards, and training. Workers may focus on three main aspects of these decisions: outcome fairness, procedural fairness, and interaction fairness.

Outcome fairness involves whether the worker perceives the decision outcome as fair compared to their expectations and what others received. Procedural fairness involves judgments about the decision-making process, where fair procedures can mitigate dissatisfaction with the outcome. Interaction fairness pertains to how the supervisor treats people during the decision-making process. Fair treatment includes timely and accurate communication, active listening, and treating workers with dignity and respect.

Training targeted at fair decision-making can improve perceptions of fair treatment in the workgroup, leading to increased organisational citizenship behaviour, where workers go above and beyond the call of duty.

Alignment: Incorporating Organisational Values and Priorities into Day-to-Day Activities

Organisations have multiple competing priorities, including cost- and production-efficiency pressures, fewer people, and more tasks. Supervisors must make time devoted to safety activities maximally effective and leverage it to accomplish multiple objectives. Safety activities such as safety meetings, incident investigations, and inspections should have a clear purpose and align with organisational objectives.

Supervisors can enhance safety by conducting safety activities effectively and using informal contacts with team members to reinforce safety priorities. For example, pre-shift meetings can include discussions on potential safety hazards and necessary tools and equipment for safe work.

Safety Contacts: Getting an Accurate Picture of Performance

Supervisors can easily overlook important exposures in the workgroup due to their busy schedules. Engaging workers in identifying root causes of exposure and addressing them can improve safety. This involves observing safety-related aspects of work, giving positive feedback, and discussing exposures with workers to determine necessary actions.

A systematic approach to safety contacts includes identifying key exposures, developing a plan for regular contact with team members, making the contacts, providing feedback and discussion, and following up on agreed actions. Regular safety contacts reinforce the supervisor’s value for safety and reduce confusion about the importance of safety relative to other organisational demands.

Supervisor demonstrating safety leadership by discussing a checklist with a worker in a warehouse, both wearing safety gear, with a laptop and packages in the background.


In conclusion, first-line supervisors play a pivotal role in supervisor safety leadership within organisations. Their influence on safety outcomes, effective communication, strong working relationships, fair decision-making, and alignment with organisational values are critical components of a successful safety program. By actively engaging in these areas, supervisors can create a safer and more productive work environment.

If you would like to know more or would like our assistance in the areas mentioned check us out at Alternately, call us on 1300 990 336 or email us at [email protected]

author avatar
Brendan Day Chief Executive Officer
Brendan Day, based in Sydney, is a WHS and Emergency Management expert with a rich background in emergency services, including significant experience as a military firefighter, emergency responder, and emergency response manager. His career spans across both public and private sector roles, where he has developed and implemented comprehensive WHS management and Emergency Management systems. As the CEO and Principle Trainer at Intrinsic Safety, Brendan combines his military discipline with modern safety practices, offering advanced training in workplace health, fire safety, confined spaces, height safety and first aid. His qualifications, including a Diploma of Work Health and Safety, reflect his commitment to safety excellence and continuous improvement in emergency response management and safety practices.
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