Motivating your field supervisors

Safety first for the cranberry harvest in New Jersey.

Your fruit or vegetable operation is facing an increasing number of workers’ compensation claims. Overexertion, severe cuts and lacerations, injuries due to improper lifting—these are all claims you think can be avoided. You have repeatedly talked with your crew leaders and other supervisors, emphasizing how much money this is costing your company, but for some reason your messages just aren’t getting through.

What’s the problem? It may well be that you’re not communicating to your supervisors—the key link between top management and nonsupervisory workers—in terms they truly understand. The fact that your operation’s insurance costs are rising is not necessarily a motivating factor to get supervisors to increase their training efforts and pay closer attention to their crew members’ activities.

“I think the strongest motivator we [company owners] can give supervisors is connecting safety to productivity,” says Fay Feeney, certified safety professional (CSP) and principal with Envision Strategy Group, a safety consulting firm. “When safety is put into supervisors’ responsibilities, we need to communicate the impact it will have on improved production, and on improving the quality of the product as well as the output of their employees.”

Getting your field supervisors to truly buy into safety is no easy task. That may be, in part, because of the messages you are sending. Here are a few examples:

• “You are responsible for getting our product to the packinghouse on time.”

• “Remember that our product is perishable. Get these vegetables harvested in the next three days no matter what.”

• “I don’t care where you find extra labor or how many hours your crew members pick. Just get this order to our customer tomorrow.”

Sound familiar? If so, don’t be surprised if safety is the last thing on your field supervisors’ minds. Rushing to get the work done is when many costly injuries occur.

A good first step in modifying, if not outright changing, the messages you relay to your supervisors is to take a good look at your company’s “culture,” Feeney suggests. “Are you, the owner, clear about your company’s culture? Do you believe such statements as ‘Labor is replaceable?’ How strongly are you communicating your views on a safety culture to your supervisors?”

While time-sensitivity is a legitimate concern, have you relayed such messages as the following to your crew leaders and other field supervisors?

• “We need to get our product to the packinghouse on time—but, equally important is making sure our crew members work safely. Rushing to get the job done results in injuries, and those will result in you spending much of your time recruiting and training replacement workers. This will slow down the production process even more than if your crew members work safely to begin with.”

• “These tomatoes need to be picked in the next two days—but, remember that if a crew member works so fast that he is injured, that will slow down our entire production process. It may also affect his judgment on which tomatoes are ready for picking. It’s your job to make sure no shortcuts are taken so we have the best quality product for our customers.”

What motivates supervisors

Equally as important as examining the messages you are sending is determining the biggest motivating factors for your supervisors. Once you do that, you can relay your messages in a manner that is much more likely to result in change.

The following are some differences in the types of messages most likely to achieve safety buy-in from top company managers, crew leaders/supervisors and crew members.

Top Management:

Emphasize dollars and cents. For example: What is the cost of a single recurring back injury versus the cost of spending five to 10 minutes per week on a tailgate safety session? How much have our company’s workers’ compensation costs increased over the last five years? How much have our insurance premiums risen over the last year, and how does that cost compare to the amount of money we spent on safety during that time?

What’s the Connection?
  Challenges Opportunities
Owner Time-sensitive product
Capital for equipment
Uncertain labor supply
Transportation of product
Quality of product


Plan ahead for peak operation
Inspect equipment in downtime to allow for maintenance and repairs
Speak to supervisors/crew leaders to identify challenges they anticipate
Reinforce importance of safety to everyone
Supervisor/Crew Leader Time sensitive product
Pressure for pick/pack
Equipment maintenance
Need for a quality work force
Quality of product
Weather – hot/cold
Identify safety hazards in work environment
Review equipment and work layout for safety improvements
Communicate simple safety messages to workers
Workers Keep supervisor/crew leader happy with production levels
Stay safe in a seasonal work environment
Work with/near potentially hazardous equipment
Compensation scheme
Understand how to work safely
Let supervisor/crew leader know about unsafe work conditions
Report injuries/illnesses and general discomfort for prompt attention

Crew Leaders/Field Supervisors: 

Determine what is most important to them. If it is money, consider monetary bonuses or additional paid time off for good safety records. Base these monetary incentives on the safety records of the entire crew. Also consider instituting a “charge-back” system for those supervisors who have budgets, which means charging all or part of the costs of workers’ compensation claims originating within a supervisor’s crew to that supervisor’s annual budget.

Nonsupervisory Crew Members: 

Talk about safety in “human” terms. This is particularly important with Hispanic/ Latino workers, whose cultures place a high value on “family.” For example, instead of saying, “Wear your safety glasses so you don’t lose your eyesight,” say, “We want you to wear safety glasses to protect your eyes so you will be able to see your children grow up.”

Feeney says it’s important to remember that the one big connection between all three of these groups is your company’s safety culture. Look at the primary challenges of your owner versus your field supervisors versus your nonsupervisory workers, then identify opportunities to effectively meet these challenges.

More important tips

• Know that your supervisors must lead by example. Be sure you are providing them with enough safety training that crew members can model their safe behaviors.

• Put your field supervisors’ safety responsibilities into writing, then verbally review them with each supervisor. Have them sign off on a sheet stating that these safety responsibilities were “explained to me in a language and manner I understand.”

• Hold your crew leaders and other supervisors accountable for enforcing safety rules. Be sure to put some “teeth” into your requirements that they enforce such rules. For example, consider disciplining the entire crew, including the crew leader, if you learn of a safety violation that wasn’t acted on or reported.

• Make sure you have written safety rules and that they are clearly explained to all supervisory and nonsupervisory employees in a language and manner they understand. Have all employees sign off on a sheet stating that they received and understand these rules.

• Be willing to spend some money on safety; for example, personal protective equipment (PPE) such as safety glasses and gloves.

• Include safety performance in supervisors’ overall performance reviews.

• Actively involve your supervisors in your company’s safety program. Review all injuries and related incidents on a monthly basis, and ask supervisors for their suggestions on additional training that is needed. If an incident was related to a specific hazard, ask for their opinions on how they would reduce or eliminate that hazard.

• Reward good safety performance. There are many inexpensive ways you can do this. A few ideas: Hold safety “barbecues.” Post photos of supervisors and crew members with good safety records on your company bulletin board. Reward entire crews each month if they have no injuries or related incidents—rewards can include caps with your company’s logo, small gift cards to local merchants or free coffee and doughnuts.

• Treat your crew leaders and other supervisors the way you want them to treat you. Praise them for a job well done. Recognize them in front of their peers and in front of all of your company’s employees.

Barbara Mulhern is a Belleville, Wis.-based freelance writer.