Supervision - Occupational Health and Safety Guide Topic

Supervisors play an important role in promoting and maintaining workplace safety. Their words and actions demonstrate how they view and value health and safety.

Appropriate and effective supervision at any level of an organization is critical to eliminating or minimizing risks to protect workers.  In New Brunswick, a supervisor is a person who supervises or directs the work of employees and can include owners, managers, superintendents, overseer, lead hands, foremen, department heads, and experienced employees designated by the employer to supervise work on a temporary basis.

Employer obligations with respect to supervision

Employers are ultimately responsible to ensure a healthy and safe workplace.  One of the most important ways to do this is to ensure that employees are competently and sufficiently supervised. 

Supervisor obligations

Supervisors have specific obligations under the OHS Act, toward the employees under their supervision and direction. They must:

  • Take every reasonable precaution to ensure their own health and safety and that of their employees.
  • Comply with the Act and regulations and ensure their employees comply with them.
  • Co-operate with WorkSafeNB health and safety officers and comply with orders issued by officers.
  • Co-operate with the JHSC or health & safety representatives, if any.
  • Acquaint employees with hazards related to their work.
  • Provide information and instruction necessary for employees to work safely.

What does competently supervised mean?

For employees to be competently supervised, employers must ensure that supervisors are qualified through training and/or experience for the work to be supervised and have access to and the sufficient knowledge to be able to understand and apply:

  • The NB Occupational Health and Safety Act and regulations that apply to the work of the employees under their supervision and direction.
  • The company’s safety policy and health and safety program.
  • Any health and safety procedures for hazards to which their employees are exposed.
  • the protective equipment required to be used by employees under their supervision.
  • Any other matters necessary to ensure the employees’ health and safety.

With the training and experience they bring to the job and the knowledge provided to them by the employer, supervisors can then competently meet their obligations to acquaint, inform and instruct by making sure employees under their supervision*:

  • Are aware of the hazards and risks associated with different tasks they perform. For example:
    • Tell employees about the hazards of energized machinery

OR

    • Verify that the employees know about the hazards of energized machinery 
  • Know how to do the work safely. For example:
    • Provide the lock out procedure for machines employees work with

OR

    • Verify that employees have received the lock out procedure for machines they work with. 
  • Have received clear steps, verbally or in writing, on how to do tasks safely. For example:
    • Show the employee, step by step, how to lock out the machine.

OR

    • Verify the employee knows how to apply the procedure to lock out a machine.

* In some workplaces, shiftwork can mean that the ‘supervisor in charge’ and the employees who report to them vary. In these cases, both the employer and the supervisor must confirm that the employees have been acquainted, informed and instructed, as outlined above, to ensure their health and safety.

What does sufficiently supervised mean?

Providing adequate supervision can involve spending time on the shop floor, management by walking around, observations, the use of checklists, job shadowing or other methods such as (temporarily) delegating authority to an experienced employee if other work demands prevent the supervisor from being present during a specific project. How frequently a supervisor observes their employees performing tasks is a “sliding scale”.  Factors to consider, when determining how much supervision is needed to ensure work is sufficiently supervised, include: 

  1. The type of work being supervised. The greater the complexity, the closer the supervision needed (such as blasting operations versus office work). 
  1. Availability of detailed, written instructions. The more detailed the instructions for tasks being performed, the less direct supervision is required (such as a task for which a written procedure is available versus a task with verbal instructions). 
  1. The employees being supervised. The level of supervision will depend on employees’ skills and experience with the task; are employees competent? A new employee requires more direct supervision and so may an experienced employee performing an unfamiliar or infrequent task. At the same time, an experienced workforce can become complacent, necessitating enhanced (direct) supervision. 
  1. The (potential) consequences and outcomes of the work being performed. The greater the likelihood of an incident and the more severe the potential injury, the greater the need for direct supervision (hazards and risk are normally higher in construction compared to office work).

Supervisors spending more time on the shop floor, looking for unsafe conditions, hazards or unsafe acts, and taking steps to promptly correct them will result in a safer workplace. During this time, supervisors can ensure:

  • Employees' performance meets safety expectations by correcting unsafe behaviours
  • That everyone has the tools and/or equipment they need and that the tools are properly maintained to carry out their work safely, and
  • New hazards that might result from changes in personnel, equipment, process or materials are identified and controlled before the change takes place.

As with any other management system in an organization (quality assurance, change management, project management), the responsibility to ensure competent and sufficient supervision begins with the employer, and then can be delegated downward to other designated staff. Sufficient supervision can best be achieved when employers put in place performance evaluations that consider effective supervision and regularly assess their supervisors’ competency.  This should be done at least annually and any gaps identified during the evaluations should be addressed.

How Supervisor behaviours influence the workplace safety culture

Supervisors are well-positioned to be safety champions, establishing safety as an organizational value. Performing regular safety activities can achieve a positive safety culture, but first and foremost, supervisors must ensure they themselves work safely (setting a good example for the employees).

Safety activities can include:

  • Performing inspections and investigations
  • Involving employees in health and safety decisions that impact their work
  • Participating on the JHSC
  • Delivering tool box or safety talks  
  • Observing employees and reinforcing safe behaviours through positive feedback
  • Recognizing employees for identifying and reporting hazards, unsafe working conditions, near misses and incidents
  • Demonstrating that safety is at least as important as production and quality
  • Maintaining a daily journal or log book with safety results

Other specific situations in the Act or regulation requiring supervision

For the provisions listed below, supervisors have additional responsibilities:

  • Investigating and addressing a work refusal.
  • Providing supervision to an employee who may have to use respiratory protective equipment.
  • Erecting a structural framework.
  • Blasting, when more than one blaster is involved in a blasting operation.
  • Providing supervision to a person learning to operate a hoisting apparatus.
  • Engineering inspection of a mobile crane.
  • Apprenticing for electrical work, and when lifting, setting or removing poles, light standards or similar work.
  • Diving operations.
  • Logging and silviculture operations.
  • Underground Mining.

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