Promoting from the floor? 5 tips to get new supervisors up to speed

When choosing a supervisor, look for people who are eager to learn and grow, have shown a dedication to health and safety, and have good communication skills.
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It doesn’t matter what you call them – supervisor, shift lead, or foreman – supervisors are an important piece of every business. They are tasked with sharing their knowledge about the job, guiding their coworkers, working safely, and seeing the job through. 

It’s great to see companies promote people to supervisory positions from within their business. This offers employees the opportunity for growth and development (one of the key factors in building a psychologically healthy workplace) and really helps with retention and job satisfaction. From a health and safety perspective, promoting from the floor provides key advantages: the person is already familiar with many parts of the operation, including its people, equipment and health and safety practices. 

When choosing a supervisor, look for people who are eager to learn and grow, have shown a dedication to health and safety, and have good communication skills. 

Once you’ve selected potential supervisors, you need to provide them with the tools to do the job well.  That means investing in training and education to develop their knowledge and skills. After all, they are the frontline guardians of health and safety at your business; protecting your workers from physical and mental harm while protecting your business from prosecutions and financial losses.  

It is important for everyone to know that supervisors have many legal responsibilities under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), including: 

  • providing a safe workplace and assigning safe work 
  • telling workers about job hazards 
  • training workers to do their jobs safely 
  • ensuring workers work safely and use equipment and protective devices properly where required 
  • taking all reasonable precaution to protect workers from illness and/or injury 

Before they can fulfill these duties, employers must ensure they are “competent” under the OHSA. This means the supervisor must be: 

  • qualified because of knowledge, training, and experience to organize the work and its performance. 
  • familiar with OHSA and its regulations 
  • knowledgeable about any potential or actual danger to health or safety in the workplace 

So how can you get your new supervisors up to speed?  

1.  When it comes to ensuring your new supervisors understand the law, go beyond awareness training. Many supervisors have little knowledge of the OHSA and its regulations. While the mandatory Health & Safety Awareness Training (OHSA), Ontario Supervisors provides a broad overview of the OHSA, a newly appointed supervisor needs to thoroughly understand the OHSA and regulations that apply to their workplace to fulfil their duties. Your supervisors should be able to answer questions such as:  

  • What should they do in the event of a work refusal or work stoppage?  
  • What are the minimum legal requirements for equipment?  
  • What are the legislated measures and procedures for dealing with a wide variety of workplace hazards?  
  • What control measures are required when using chemicals, including solvents?  
  • What does due diligence mean in practice?  
  • What does the law say about workplace harassment and violence? 

Supervisors also need to be familiar with Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) requirements for accommodation and return to work, and reporting workplace injuries outlined in the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act (WSIA).

2.  Ensure supervisors understand all the hazards in their work area; otherwise, they can’t fulfill their duties under the OHSA to keep the workplace safe. New supervisors need orientation training on the general hazards in the workplace, the specific hazards in their work area, and the control measures that are in place to mitigate those hazards.

The best way for businesses to understand what hazards your workers face is to conduct a hazard assessment. Look at tasks, work practices, equipment, materials and products. Once you have a list of hazards, use it to train new supervisors.

3.  Develop your new supervisor's ‘soft skills’. Helping supervisors have the confidence to do their job will also give other workers confidence in their supervisors.  Supervisor who are approachable, friendly, and responsive, will have better work relationships with workers, and workers will feel more comfortable raising concerns with them. 

Good interpersonal skills are essential to encourage workers to speak up about hazards, as they are required to do under the Internal Responsibility System (IRS), ask questions, express their concerns, and suggest improvements. By being receptive to workers that speak up, act on concerns, and keeping workers up to date on the progress of action, supervisors help establish a good safety culture.

A new supervisor also needs to have excellent communication skills to effectively mentor, coach, train and guide a wide variety of workers with different skill levels and learning styles. There also may be language barriers that require supervisors to use simple language, avoid jargon or acronyms, speak slowly and be aware of cultural differences when training and coaching.  

4.  Partner a new supervisor with an experienced and competent supervisor. This is one of the best ways for a new supervisor to learn all aspects of their job: the hazards and controls, how to hold safety talks, how to coach workers, how to train and assess learning, how to respond to an incident, and more. 

By experienced, I mean a supervisor who meets the definition of competent and demonstrates good supervisory skills. They monitor for hazards and provide coaching moments when there are any gaps in control of hazards involving workers (not following safety procedures, forklift drivers not exhibiting good driving habits, etc.) and take action when workplace problems arise (machine guard is damaged, etc.)  

5.  Invest in your supervisors. If you don’t have the in-house expertise to bring your new supervisors up to the level of competency required, there are plenty of outside training options available. Supervisors are worth investing in. They are making sure that everything you expect to be happening – and that the law expects of you – s happening. Not investing in supervisors can result in an unsafe workplace that leaves them and you vulnerable to fines, orders and prosecution. 

Additional Resources

Have health and safety questions? Please contact Denise Lam, WSPS Account Manager, Small Business at [email protected].

The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date. 

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