An Open Letter to District Supervisors and Managers

Nowadays, we run into safety messages everywhere we go. Billboards, magazines, television, and even this publication all try to constantly remind us about the dangers around us. If you have spent any time looking at the financial toll of accidents on balance sheets, or the human toll of accidents in emergency rooms, you know those messages are important.

But just because something is important, it doesn’t mean people will pay attention. When we are at work, a lot of the focus is on staying efficient and productive. Those are admirable goals, but they certainly aren’t the only ones. While the responsibility for safety lies with every contributor at your district—including managers, supervisors, board members, employees, and even volunteers—it does ultimately fall on management to ensure that everyone goes home safely at the end of the day. As a supervisor in your district, you are looked upon as a leader and as such, you have a responsibility to guide your team, adapt to changes that come up, and plan for success. But part of that mission means ensuring that your district is both a safe workplace and a safe place for guests and visitors.

The best way to execute that mission is the build trust with your team. They need to know that, no matter what, you have their backs. This goes both ways. You need to trust your employees to make thoughtful, safe decisions. More importantly, you need to rely on them to notify you when something isn’t safe or looks like it could be dangerous. Your employees need to know that if they say something, you will support their decision to halt work and investigate. If continue to place emphasis only on getting the job completed at any cost, then you might see success for a time, but you are also likely to find yourself in a terrible situation where someone could get seriously hurt.

Despite the seriousness of that message, a lot of people are not moved by the threat that their colleagues might be seriously hurt by the inaction or inattention of management. It isn’t that they don’t care; it’s that they don’t think that those bad things will happen to their team. They do a cost benefit analysis in their head and don’t feel the risk is great enough to act. They might think they’re being optimistic.

But they’re wrong. Consider the risk of a serious accident at your district—either during a large scale project or during daily tasks. Ask yourself a few questions. Why don’t we put safety first? Is it because stopping to address a safety concern would cost too much money or too much time?

Even if worry about a loss of time and money is your chief concern, think also about how your productivity will stall if there is a serious or even a moderate accident that leads to an injury. Will your project still get done on time even without the injured employee or employees? How much money will your district lose to their lost productivity, never mind the cost of their care? What does that do to your budget?

In the end, you are behind schedule, have injured one or more employees, demoralized the rest, and spent far more money than you anticipated on all the direct and indirect costs of this accident. Suddenly being optimistic looks more like being a little short-sighted. Suddenly going back in time and being cautious looks like the most efficient way to think.

If you had listened to an employee who identified that safety concern, or any safety concern, it certainly would have cost you time and money to investigate. It might have cost money to address the concern, were it valid. But at the end, a project done safely is a project done well. This is all part of being able to adapt to our surroundings and to each situation that comes up.

Not every project is going to go according to plan. Unfortunately, that’s just how life works. By leading and training your team to speak up and look out for the person next to them, you can increase the likelihood of safety and success at your district.

The tack you take as a supervisor, manager, or board member is going to define not only the type of work you are doing but the type of leader you are. Doing the right thing solidifies the respect that your employees have for you. You will demonstrate that you do not take their wellbeing for granted. They will have faith that you are willing to hear them out and address their concerns. They will feel, and rightly so, that they really are your district’s greatest assets. Be the reason that these folks have opportunity every day. You never know what dangers may be lurking around the next corner, so develop your team to recognize, communicate, and neutralize any threats they encounter. That way, everyone wins.

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