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Step 1: Make a difference

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Why the supervisor is so important

When a person is hired or promoted to the position of a supervisor, it usually means a pay raise. But it also means more responsibilities, including legal responsibilities relating to the health and safety of the workers under your supervision. It's a natural thing for a new supervisor to wonder if he or she is up to the challenge. In fact, asking yourself that question will help you figure out what additional information or instruction you might need to do your job well.

People expect a lot from a supervisor, no matter how big or small the workplace is. A healthy and safe workplace matters to everyone, and the OHSA expects supervisors to be the front-line guardians of worker’s health and safety, whether the work is performed on a construction project, in a healthcare facility, an industrial establishment or in a mine. Every good employer also expects that from you, and so do the people you supervise.

A supervisor has to play a lot of different roles, often at the same time. Think about the roles that people play at a basketball game.

From the list below, what roles do you think apply to a supervisor's work?

  • coach
  • trainer
  • referee
  • cheerleader
  • captain
  • all of the above

All of the above. Chances are you will be called upon to play any and all of the above roles as you strive to keep your workplace healthy, safe and productive.

As a supervisor, you are a crucial part of your workplace’s Internal Responsibility System. This is a very important concept for workplace health and safety and you will learn more about this throughout this training.

The number of people in Ontario who suffer a work-related illness or injury each year would fill the seats of a dozen big hockey arenas. New and young workers in Ontario are three times more likely to get hurt during the first month on the job than at any other time. They often aren’t told about or understand the hazards of the job. They don’t know what to expect from their employer and supervisor. Sometimes they aren’t sure what questions to ask; sometimes they don’t even know who to ask. That’s where you come in. It’s a big challenge, but it’s also a big opportunity to make a difference.

Your duties as a supervisor

Under the OHSA, every supervisor is also considered to be a worker and has the same workplace duties and rights as a worker. But the OHSA also gives you specific duties related to your role as a supervisor, including:

  • telling workers about hazards and dangers and responding to their concerns
  • showing workers how to work safely and making sure they follow the law, and the workplace health and safety policies and procedures
  • making sure workers wear and use the right protective equipment
  • doing everything reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers from being hurt or getting a work-related illness

The OHSA requires every employer to prepare a written occupational health and safety policy for that workplace and to develop and maintain a program to implement that policy. One of your tasks as a supervisor is to put that program into action. Here is how you do it:

1. You know the OHSA and the various regulations attached to it that apply to your workplace

A supervisor who knows and understands the OHSA and regulations can make sure workers follow the law, and can identify ways to make the workplace safer. The various regulations under the OHSA contain detailed requirements about how to make the workplace safe. For example, several regulations, such as the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) regulation, explain what workers need in order to work safely with chemical and other hazardous materials or designated substances – things like training, warning labels on products and information sheets. There are also regulations that specify requirements for different types of workplaces, such as construction projects, health care facilities, industrial establishments and mines.

2. You make sure workers wear and use the right protective equipment

Your employer is responsible for telling you what types of protective equipment, device or clothing they require workers to use or wear, and both of you are responsible for making sure the workers are using or wearing it. That means you need to know and understand the requirements in the act and its regulations about equipment, devices and clothing, as well as your employer’s health and safety policy, program and work procedures.

3. You tell workers about the hazards in their work

Every workplace has hazards. Hazards include anything in the workplace that can hurt workers or make them sick. A supervisor must know and be able to explain the actual and potential dangers involved in the work he or she is supervising, and ensure that the workers do their work safely. A few regulations even say that you have to give written instructions that tell the workers what steps and procedures must be followed to stay safe. You need to know about these regulations if they apply to the work you are supervising. Your general duties as a supervisor also apply to the prevention of workplace violence.

4. You plan the work so that it can be done safely

The people you supervise are relying on your knowledge and experience of the work to make sure it’s done safely. The OHSA requires employers to make sure you have the necessary competence to be a supervisor. Later we will look at this responsibility in more detail.

5. You make sure workers know and follow through on their health and safety duties

It's your job to monitor the work, to remind workers of their health and safety duties if necessary, to show them how to work safely, and to enforce the employer’s workplace health and safety policies and procedures if they aren't being followed.

Doing the five things we have just reviewed will help you to carry out your duties under the OHSA.

To make sure you're doing your job right, here are a few important questions you should ask yourself:

  • Do I understand the OHSA and the regulations that apply to the work we do?
  • Can I explain these sections of the OHSA and regulations to the workers?
  • Am I informing the workers about hazards?
  • Have I planned the work so that it can be done safely?
  • Am I making sure the workers wear or use the protective gear, clothing and devices as required by the employer?

Can you think of any other questions you should ask yourself?

Other good questions to ask yourself are:

  • Am I responding to and documenting problems that the workers are bringing to my attention?
  • Am I making sure equipment is operating properly?
  • Am I keeping an eye on the work and showing how to do it properly?
  • Am I always looking for new hazards that may come up?

Duties of the employer and the worker

As you can see, a supervisor has a lot of serious responsibilities. To carry out those responsibilities you need the help of your employer and of the people you supervise. The Occupational Health and Safety Act gives duties to employers and workers that will help you do your job.

The OHSA says it's the employer's duty to appoint a "competent person" as a supervisor. To be a competent supervisor under the OHSA, you must:

  • have knowledge, training and experience to organize work for your workers
  • be familiar with the OHSA and the regulations that apply to the work you are supervising
  • have knowledge of any potential or actual danger to health or safety in the workplace

Your employer must ensure that you are competent before you start supervising. This includes ensuring that you know the OHSA and the regulations that apply to the work, and that you know about any potential or actual dangers to health and safety in the work you are supervising. If your workplace is a small one and the supervisor and employer are the same person, then that one person must comply with both employer and supervisor duties.

Here are some other things the OHSA says the employer must do:

Where there are more than five workers regularly employed in the workplace:

  • Create and review on an annual basis a health and safety policy.
  • Develop a program to implement that policy.
  • Post the policy in the workplace.

For all workplaces:

  • Make sure workers and supervisors know about hazards in the work they do and provide them with information, instruction and supervision to protect their health and safety.
  • Take steps to eliminate hazards in the workplace, and where elimination is not possible, to control them.
  • Make sure workers use and wear protective equipment, material and devices where required by the regulations.
  • Do everything reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers from being hurt or getting a work-related illness.

If you work in construction, it’s important to know that the constructor of the project also has duties to keep the workplace safe. This means that on a construction site, the constructor and your employer both have distinct responsibilities under the law. Sometimes the constructor is also your employer, in which case that one person must comply with both constructor and employer duties.

The OHSA also gives workers certain duties that support your role as supervisor:

  • Workers have to follow the law and workplace health and safety policies and procedures.
  • Workers have to use and wear the protective equipment required by the employer.
  • Workers have to act in a way that won’t hurt themselves or anyone else.
  • If workers see anything that's unsafe or that goes against the act, they have to tell you or the employer about it, so that you can take the necessary steps with your employer to solve the problem.

They have to report to you or the employer the absence of or any defect in any equipment or protective device of which they become aware.

As a supervisor, you can make a difference in your workplace, but you can't do it alone. You need your employer and the workers you supervise to do their part to keep the workplace safe. Like you, they need to be aware of their health and safety duties under the OHSA and regulations. That's the first step in creating an effective Internal Responsibility System. Prevention starts here, but it doesn't end here.

Step 1 quiz

Before we move on to Step 2 of the program, here is a short quiz on the material we have just covered.

True or false?

  1. The only duty of a supervisor that’s included in the Occupational Health and Safety Act is the duty to “take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances” to protect workers.
  2. The OHSA requires the employer to appoint a "competent person" as a supervisor. By “competent” the OHSA means that a supervisor must, among other things, have the necessary knowledge, training and experience to carry out his or her health and safety duties.
  3. As a supervisor, you have the greatest responsibility for health and safety in your workplace.
  4. New and young workers need a supervisor's special attention and guidance, especially during their first few weeks on the job.
  5. If workers see something that's unsafe, the OHSA says they need to solve the problem.

Answers to Step 1 quiz

  1. False. Section 27 of the OHSA specifies the five key supervisor duties.
  2. True.
  3. False. Because employers have the most authority in the workplace, they have the greatest responsibility for health and safety. Supervisors are next in line, then the workers.
  4. True.
  5. False. The OHSA says the workers need to report the problem to you so that you can take the necessary steps with the employer to solve the problem.
Updated: March 29, 2022
Published: March 29, 2022