Supervision is a key component in any effective Safety Management System; although my experience is that supervisory arrangements are rarely identified as a discrete part of the management system. Where supervision is effective, this can often be because individuals and their teams are highly experienced and competent, rather than because of any formal management system or process by the organisation.

Many organisations place considerable emphasis on leadership, and personnel may receive training and coaching on this topic. However, as detailed below, leadership is only one aspect and companies often place less emphasis on the many other aspects of supervision. In the pivotal Robens report on health and safety in the UK, the role of supervisors was recognised:

“It is the supervisor who is on the spot and in a position to know whether or not safety arrangements are working in practice.
His or her influence can be decisive”

Robens, 1972, p.17

This is an early reference to the distinction between paperwork and reality; sometimes referred to as ‘work-as-imagined’ versus ‘work-as-done’. Most would agree that the supervisor is in a good position to ensure that safe working practices are adopted.

What does supervision actually involve?

Supervision has been defined as a management function that can be delivered by one or more individuals within and/or external to a team. It involves controlling, influencing and leading a team. People with supervisory roles are expected to maintain discipline, to take responsibility, and be held accountable for the actions of a team (HSE, 2004).

Key aspects of effective supervision include:

  1. Planning routine work for the team
  2. Allocating routine work to team members
  3. Making decisions under normal conditions
  4. Making decisions under abnormal conditions
  5. Monitoring the team’s performance
  6. Planning activities specifically related to health and safety
  7. Allocating activities specifically related to health and safety
  8. Monitoring health and safety performance
  9. Ensuring compliance with health and safety rules and procedures
  10. Leading the team during normal situations
  11. Leading the team during abnormal situations
  12. Facilitating communication within the team and between the team and management
  13. Ensuring teamwork and developing the team
  14. Facilitating workforce involvement
  15. Applying disciplinary procedures.

You may wish to consider how these various supervisory activities are performed within different teams in your organisation. These responsibilities may be shared among more than one person.  This is generally fine, as long as all of the relevant activities are assigned to someone who is able to undertake them and the different parties communicate and interact.  For example, if work planning is conducted by an external person, rather than the team supervisor, this may lead to issues if it doesn’t take into account work demands, current issues and available resources.

Whatever the arrangements to deliver supervision, organisations must understand the strengths and weaknesses of their approach – and ensure that the necessary counter-balances are in place.

The links between supervision and safety

Despite the fact that management and supervision are often considered to be the most significant organisational factors affecting accidents, most organisations do not fully understand the links between supervision and health and safety (and other outcomes).

In simple terms, supervisors should have regular contact with their teams – and in doing so, ensure that everyone knows how to work without risk to their health and safely; and ensure that everyone follows the appropriate rules and procedures.  It follows that part of this role is to coach, guide and support to increase the competence of their teams in these areas.

Supervisors can have a significant impact on many of the factors that influence behaviours in the workplace. For example, they can influence compliance with procedures, priorities, clarity of roles, workload, fatigue, engagement and organisational culture. Supervision is an administrative control that supports or reinforces other human factors issues including competence and procedures. If competence and procedures are two sides of the same coin, I like to think of supervision as the edge of the coin, binding these two aspects together.

Failures in supervision have contributed to a number of major accidents in a number of safety critical industries. In fact, I have found that supervision is often only considered following an adverse event. In safety-critical industries that have the potential for major accidents, inadequacies and deficiencies in supervision may not be immediately obvious due to the low frequency of adverse events, and so these industries need to be vigilant to any gradual degradation in supervisory arrangements.

For example, the Longford Royal Commission (appointed to investigate the causes of an explosion and fires that occurred at the Longford gas plant in September 1998) reported that:

operators failed to adhere to basic operating practices. . . failings so prevalent as to have become almost standard operating practice. These practices could not have developed or survived had there been adequate supervision of day to day operations. . .The change in supervisor responsibilities, discussed later in this chapter, may have contributed by leaving operators without properly structured supervision (Report of the Longford Royal Commission, 1999).

In the healthcare sector, an Inquiry into obstetric and gynaecological services at King Edward Memorial Hospital (KEMH) during the 1990’s discussed serious concerns about quality control, peer review and clinical management processes at the hospital. The Inquiry was critical about the supervision provided and stated that:

one of the more serious problems affecting patient care and safety at KEMH has been the inadequate supervision of junior medical staff, particularly by the Hospital’s consultants (Douglas Inquiry, 2001).

Various studies suggest that supervisors should have the following characteristics in order to prevent their subordinates from being involved in an accident:

  1. a positive attitude to safety
  2. high standards for their own safety
  3. meet with workers frequently to discuss safety matters
  4. visit the workplace frequently to get updates, monitor and coach (but not trying to catch them out)
  5. raise safety issues with staff at the point of concern
  6. be involved in safety training of their staff
  7. be involved in accident investigations and safety inspections, and
  8. have a supportive and participative style of management.

A great deal has been written about management styles. To grossly summarise this work, I think that if supervisors and their staff have a good working relationship that is based on mutual respect and trust, then staff are more likely to work in a way that they feel their supervisor expects. It also follows that if a supervisor always talks about production, reaching targets and getting the job done, then workers are likely to feel that ‘how it is done’ is less important than getting it done.

The above supports the need to provide supervisors with training and coaching on various non-technical skills.

Supervisors and their relationship to Managers & Leaders

Although the focus of this section is on effective supervision, it is important to note that the organisational levels above supervisors are equally important in overall safety and health management. It would be a mistake to focus solely on supervisors in isolation from the rest of the organisational hierarchy. Supervisors may be the members of the management team who are closest to the workforce, but they do not have complete responsibility for health, safety, reliability and other commercial outcomes. To be effective supervisors are dependent on support from all levels of management above them.

Everyone in an organisation has part to play, and so organisations should outline the roles and responsibilities of supervisors, managers and leaders with respect to effective supervision. For example:

Leaders: Set supervisory arrangements within a wider policy; provide adequate resources for effective supervision; create systems to monitor, audit and review supervisory arrangements.

Managers: Ensure supervisors have sufficient time and resources to balance commercial demands with their supervisory responsibilities, including those relating to health and safety. Translate high-level policies into systems and procedures.

Supervisors: Risk assessment, planning, monitoring, oversight, guidance, coaching etc.

Supervision and the law

Basic health and safety legal requirements in many countries (such as the UK, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Australia) include the provision of information, instruction, training and supervision. For example, in the UK this is contained within the Health & Safety at Work Act (1974). The Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) to the UK Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 states:

“Establishing control includes . . . ensuring adequate and appropriate supervision, particularly for those who are learning and who are new to a job” (para 35(d)).

Supervision: Key principles

Management arrangements

Supervision is a critical management function and this must be reflected in an organisation’s Safety Management System.

Effective supervision does not happen by chance.

It is well-established that supervision is a key factor in health and safety performance; therefore the priority given to supervision should reflect the risk. Supervisory arrangements should be described in more detail for safety-critical organisations.

There are several different ways of delivering supervision and different forms of supervision are appropriate in different circumstances. Organisations therefore need to identify the weaknesses in the way that they deliver supervision and put in place counterbalances to address these. For example, traditional hierarchical team structures generally provide effective command and control, but lower levels of employee involvement. Supervision has a key influence on the way that teams perform. Therefore, the way supervision is delivered must be appropriate for the way the team functions.

Arrangements must ensure effective supervision, oversight and leadership in upsets and emergency situations.

During and following period of organisational change, it is important to ensure that all of the supervisory arrangements are delivered successfully, all of the time. An organisation’s Safety Management System should include management of change arrangements that ensure this. Measure, audit and review all aspects of supervisory performance so that any opportunity for improvement can be identified and implemented. Incident reporting and analysis should consider the role of supervision as a contributing or influencing factor.


Individuals with any form of supervisory role must have the necessary aptitude and competence. ‘Competence’ includes technical skills as well as non-technical skills such as planning, communication and delegation. Technical competence should include an understanding of the hazards and control measures. Supervisors should have the experience and credibility to gain respect from others in order to lead and influence.

When staff are promoted into their first supervisory position, they may feel vulnerable, and must be provided with training in their new responsibilities. Consider providing support and coaching by more experienced staff for the first year.

If personnel are supervising multi-skilled or multi-disciplinary teams (such as a team of electrical and mechanical maintenance technicians), the supervisor may not be competent in all technical areas (for example, where the supervisor has an electrical background).  In these cases, ensure that the team is competent in all areas, roles are clear and that technical support is readily available (for both the supervisor and team members).

Some supervisory functions may be performed by team members, such as taking responsibility for certain areas, intervening when others work unsafely, or coaching others.  In these cases, team members should receive appropriate training and support.

Promoting team members

If supervisors are to be selected from existing team members, ensure that they are a good ‘fit’ with the supervisory role and appreciate that the roles may be quite different. Supervisors should not be selected solely because they are good at their current job.  Identify the various factors necessary to be a good supervisor and select according to those factors.

The personality of supervisors is critical. They need to be able to engage with their team members, whilst knowing when and how to provide leadership. This can be a difficult balance to achieve.

Time and resources

All supervisors should have the time to discharge their responsibilities effectively. Often supervisors find themselves fully occupied with administrative activities and unable to visit the work-site.  I call this ‘supervision by spreadsheets’, and many of the components of effective supervision will be absent. Any work plans should include provision for supervision activities and the proportion of time to be spent on the different aspects of supervision should be continually reviewed. Given the influence on risk, it should be checked that ‘supervision-as-defined’ is the same as ‘supervision-in-practice’.  Understand any differences between supervision as formally described and supervision as done, then address any deficiencies.

Key considerations to support supervisors in their role would include: (i) the number of people reporting to them, (ii) the geographical ‘spread’ of the areas and people for which they are responsible, and (iii) the competing activities that distract them from supervising activities.

Supervision should be an explicit part of the job description with clear expectations. Staff appraisals should evaluate supervisory activities as well as other aspects of the role.

Supervising contractors

Contractors and third-parties can have a significant impact on health and safety performance and so supervision of contractors must be properly managed. The arrangements for supervision of contractors should ensure that new hazards are not introduced or risks increased. There should be a very clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the contractor and client. Include supervisory arrangements in contract discussions and consider assessing the adequacy of these arrangements.

Where contractors work alongside the client, ensure that the responsibilities for supervision are often clearly defined and understood.

More information on supervision

Key actions in supervising for health and safety effectively, One-page guidance, extracted from UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) publication HSG65, “Managing for health and safety” (ISBN 978 0 7176 6456 6, Third edition, published 2013).

Supervision, competence and risk, Extracted from UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) publication HSG65, “Managing for health and safety” (ISBN 978 0 7176 1276 5, Second edition, published 1997). This guidance outlines two key aspects to supervision – task management and team building.  It also provides a diagram to illustrate the balance between the degree of supervision, the risk of the job and the competence of the person.

Management & supervision at mining operations: FAQs. This information sheet was produced by the Department of Mines and Petroleum, Western Australia.  Although specific to mining, some sections of this Information Sheet are highly relevant to many safety-critical industries, particularly Section 12 onwards.

Guidance Note: Safety supervision and creating an environment for effective supervision. This two-page Guidance Note was produced by WorkSafe Victoria, Australia (July 2011) and is relevant to all industries. It provides advice on creating an effective environment for supervision in the workplace including information on: roles and responsibilities, skills and knowledge and workplace practices. Checklist: Safety supervision and creating an environment for effective supervision. This checklist was produced by WorkSafe Victoria, Australia (July 2011). It builds on the Guidance Note, which should be read before this checklist is used.

Guidance Note: Supervising workers with specialist knowledge or skills. This two-page Guidance Note was produced by WorkSafe Victoria, Australia (July 2011) and is relevant to all industries. It focuses on the supervision of specialists (such as contractors) and discusses communication, hazard identification, risk control and judging the level of supervision required. Checklist – Supervising workers with specialist knowledge. This checklist was produced by WorkSafe Victoria, Australia (July 2011). It builds on the Guidance Note and can be used to develop, assess and monitor processes to ensure tasks are carried out safely. The Guidance Note should be read before this checklist is used.

Different types of supervision and the impact on safety in the chemical and allied industries, UK HSE Research Report, RR292, (2004). This report contains an assessment tool which organisations can use to assess existing supervisory arrangements. This tool will help to ensure that all key supervisory functions are clearly defined and appropriately allocated. It can be used for on-going review or to help prepare for an organisational change.

Benchmarking employee supervisory processes in the chemical industry, UK HSE Research Report, RR312 (2005) This report details an assessment of the key inputs to and outputs from supervisory processes used in the chemical industry.

Control and Supervision of Operations, UK Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), Guidance on Licence Condition 26 (LC26). The purpose of this Licence Condition is to ensure that all safety related operations are only carried out under the control and supervision of suitably qualified and experienced personnel. This guidance provides a framework to guide inspection activities carried out by HM Nuclear Inspectors in this area.

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