Middle managers and supervisors
Middle managers and supervisors are responsible for managing, leading and supporting workers to understand and meet work health and safety (WHS) policies and procedures.
The role of middle managers explained
Definition of a middle manager
A middle manager or supervisor is a worker who has responsibility in their organisation for managing other workers. They usually report to a senior manager, executive or another middle manager.
Depending on their role and influence, a middle manager or supervisor may be an 'officer' in their organisation's business or undertaking under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act). An officer includes a person who makes, or participates in making, decisions that affect the whole, or a substantial part, of a business or undertaking. Officers have a duty under the WHS Act to be proactive and continuously ensure that their business or undertaking complies with its relevant WHS duties or obligations.
Duties of a middle manager or supervisor
Duties as a worker
All workers, including middle managers and supervisors, have duties under section 28 of the WHS Act. These duties include taking reasonable care for your own psychological and physical health and safety and that your actions or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of other persons. This would include:
- asking a supervisor if you are not sure how to safely perform your work
- participating in safety training
- wearing any personal protective equipment (PPE) you are given
- reporting hazards or work practices you feel may be unsafe
- following operational procedures such as safe work method statements
- following relevant safety manuals and emergency procedures
- complying with relevant codes of conduct
- understanding an following internal incident reporting processes.
Duties as a middle manager
As a middle manager or supervisor, your duty as a worker to take 'reasonable care' is proportionate to the control you can exercise over your work activities and work environment. You should consider what is expected of you when carrying out your work and discharging your responsibilities according to the skills and expertise expected of a person holding themselves out to be able to undertake your management or supervisory role.
For example, middle managers or supervisors are generally expected to take reasonable care to:
- ensure that psychological and physical health and safety is integrated into team planning and does not get downgraded based on competing priorities, budgetary constraints, or a lack of resources
- promote and encourage open discussions on psychological and physical health and safety at all levels of the business to ensure that workers can achieve outcomes based on open communication, consultation, negotiation and agreement
- engage with workers to ensure they understand what safety standards are expected of them
- provide instruction and training to workers about operational procedures and working safely
- prevent workers from working in an unsafe manner, for example, not wearing appropriate PPE
- act on reports of hazards or unsafe work practices
- encourage feedback and communication channels between workers, middle managers and senior managers
- ensure that safety practitioners and advisers, and senior managers and executives, are made aware of issues or concerns on safety, especially hazards or flaws in operational procedures
- model safe work practices to workers and other managers
- involve and assist workers in any change management process
- help other duty holders to meet their obligations under the WHS Act.
Duties as an officer
If you are a middle manager that makes, or takes part in making, decisions that affect all or a large part of your organisation, you would also have duties as an officer under section 27 of the WHS Act and should read the role guide for senior managers and executives.
For a full list of duties, see Part 2 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.
As a worker or an officer who does not comply with a duty imposed on them under the WHS Act commits an offence, and may be subject to prosecution resulting in a fine and, for an offence that exposes an individual to the risk of serious injury or death, the possibility of imprisonment.
Offences and penalties are set out in Part 2 Division 5 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.
Notifying the regulator
As a manager, you are often the first to hear about or witness an incident in or relating to the workplace. Therefore, you can play an important role in helping the 'person conducting a business or undertaking' (PCBU), who is usually your employer, to meet their legal obligations to notify Comcare.
It is vital that you ensure your workplace has clear, effective and workable reporting processes that enable the PCBU to meet their obligation to notify Comcare of serious incidents. This includes ensuring workers are aware of:
- the need for them to report incidents according to internal policies and procedures
- the PCBU’s obligations to 'immediately' notify the regulator of deaths, serious injuries and illnesses and certain dangerous incidents that arise out of work or in relation to a workplace
- the obligation of the person with management or control of a workplace to preserve the incident site and not disturb it until a Comcare inspector attends the site or advises otherwise.
Communicating and consulting with workers
As a manager, you need to ensure that workers are consulted and involved in any psychological or physical health or safety matter that will, or may, affect them. Relevant information about WHS matters must be shared with workers. Workers must also be given reasonable opportunities to express their views and raise issues by providing ideas and feedback to you as their manager, or to their health and safety representative (HSR), a safety practitioner or adviser, or other relevant managers or executives.
Consultation with workers and other relevant duty holders is required when:
- identifying hazards and assessing risks arising from work
- making decisions about ways to eliminate or minimise those risks
- making decisions about the adequacy of facilities for the welfare of workers
- proposing changes that may affect the health or safety of workers
- making decisions about the procedures for resolving health or safety issues
- monitoring the health of workers or workplace conditions, information and training or consultation with workers
- carrying out any other activity prescribed by the WHS Regulations.
For more information, see the Work Health and Safety Consultation, Co-operation and Co-ordination Code of Practice 2015.
The following steps can assist managers to determine how to approach consultation and communication:
Ensure your workforce are aware of risks and how they are controlled. This could be done by:
- providing information during workplace induction
- carrying out regular workplace briefings
- using an interpreter or translation service if necessary
- involving workers in all matters which affect their health and safety at work.
Instruction and training
Ensure your workers understand how to do their job in a way that does not put their health and safety, or the health and safety of their colleagues, at risk. This could be done by:
- showing your commitment so that your employees recognise the importance of training. You may also need to appoint someone competent to conduct the training for you
- supervising is particularly vital when workers are new, inexperienced or young. Even experienced workers can become complacent and take shortcuts.
Work with health and safety representatives (HSRs)
Health and safety representatives (HSRs) and other worker representatives can play key roles in getting people on board with new initiatives. They represent the interests and concerns of workers and provide valuable insight, skills and resources.
- Give the HSR full support and access to necessary equipment and facilities.
- Understand the role and function of the HSR and other representatives.
- Involve HSRs as potential champions to assist in the promotion of psychological and physical health and safety in your team
- Consult HSRs regularly, even if it is informally.
- Arrange specific meetings with HSRs for key issues such as high risk areas, proposed changes in the workplace and health surveillance issues.
As workers are often the most aware of psychological and physical health and safety issues and solutions, it makes sense to listen to them. If your workers feel their ideas are valued, they will generally have a stronger commitment to tackling such problems.
- Conduct regular scheduled WHS meetings
- Arrange for health and safety to be part of other scheduled meetings, such as team meetings
- Conduct tool box talks - an informal safety meeting that focuses on safety topics related to the specific job, such as workplace hazards and safe work practices. Meetings are normally short and held at the job site prior to the commencement of a job or work shift
- Engage in face-to-face discussions
- Set up focus groups to deal with specific issues.
Other ways to consult workers could include:
- undertake worker surveys
- display information on noticeboards
- log and respond to issues or concerns raised by workers
- share information and good practice through newsletters and updates.
Joint problem solving
Involving workers in problem solving can help to improve psychological and physical health and safety standards and increase productivity, efficiency and motivation throughout the workforce. It can also boost co-operation and trust between workers, managers and senior leaders. You can:
- involve workers and their representatives in tackling health and safety issues to create a genuine and valuable partnership
- allow concerns and ideas to be freely shared and acted upon as the whole workforce aims for a healthier and safer environment
- tell your workers about health and safety and they’ll know about it, involve them and they’ll understand.
Barriers to effective consultation
Finding the right time and delivering messages in the right way can be a challenge. As a manager you should establish a relationship with workers that encourages open and honest discussion and mutual trust.
Consultation often fails due to:
- lack of clarity of message
- absence of emotional resonance in your message
- inaccurate targeting
- poor timing
- no genuine feedback process.
Tips to reduce barriers through communication:
- provide clear messages with concrete examples to help people focus their energies
- think about what you say and how you say it
- written material should be backed up by verbal communication
- check the tone of the communication (edit, edit and edit again)
- some news is better than no news
- let people know what is happening, you are the key in communicating change, workers look to you to see if there is real acceptance.
You can use the following ways to ensure you are promoting and contributing to effective communication:
- encourage worker contribution at meetings
- seek information from your intranet and raise awareness on matters that may affect workers
- establish an open and constructive approach to talking to your workers
- consider the barriers to communication in remote and isolated work locations (such as shift work, working on your own, isolated by distance or working from home). Make daily contact with workers where possible.
Managing the worker to cease unsafe work
You should be aware that a worker is permitted to cease, or refuse to carry out, work if the worker has a reasonable concern that to carry out the work would expose them to a serious risk to their psychological or physical health or safety.
Workers who cease unsafe work must notify the relevant PCBU as soon as practicable after doing so.
PCBUs can re-direct workers who have ceased unsafe work to carry out suitable alternative work at the same or another workplace. The suitable alternative work must be safe and appropriate for the worker until they can resume normal duties.
As their manager or supervisor, the worker is likely to let you know of the unsafe work and you must consider how to provide suitable alternative work until the issue has been resolved.
You should also:
- ensure that the safety practitioner or adviser is advised of the situation as soon as possible after becoming aware of the unsafe work. This will assist in meeting the notification requirements placed on the PCBU under the WHS Act and to initiate a risk management processes
- undertake an immediate risk assessment of the work area, in consultation with any HSRs, to ensure that no other workers are affected or at risk and that the risk is contained
- communicate and consult with the work health safety team about appropriate options for dealing with the issue, such as risk controls.
Support work health and safety entry permit holders
The WHS Act allows for union officials who have completed an approved training course to apply for a work health and safety entry permit.
Work health and safety entry permit holders are entitled to enter workplaces and exercise certain rights, including to inspect things and talk to workers while at the workplace.
You must not:
- without reasonable excuse, refuse or unduly delay an entry permit holder from entering a workplace
- intentionally and unreasonably hinder or obstruct an entry permit holder from entering a workplace or exercising any rights.
Supporting rehabilitation or return to work
Under the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (SRC Act), managers have a responsibility to support the recovery at, or return to work, of employees with a work-related injury or illness.
This may include:
- fostering a workplace that encourages and supports safe work practices and the early reporting of injuries
- advising the rehabilitation case manager when you become aware of an injury
- taking steps to prevent further injuries by understanding their causes and putting safeguards in place
- keeping contact with the employee with an injury or illness to support and identify available assistance to help them recover or return to work
- working with the rehabilitation case manager to identify suitable duties for the employee
- changing or modifying the work and environment for the employee
- contributing to the return to work plan and promptly letting the rehabilitation case manager know of any concerns
- working with the employee to ensure their return to work is sustainable.
Recovery and return to work resources
As a supervisor, you have an important role in supporting employees with an injury or illness to safely recover and return to work.
We have videos, factsheets and posters available to help explain the benefits of supporting employees to safely return to work, the importance of responding early to injuries and illness, employer responsibilities and how to effectively lead your organisation's return to work approach.
See at Recovery and return to work resources
For more information see Return to work process for employers
Prevention and early intervention is timely action to minimise the impact and duration of emerging symptoms of work-related injury or illness. As a manager you can:
- Recognise the early warning signs of worker distress and low morale.
- Support the worker and demonstrate empathy by initiating a conversation that expresses concern and allows the worker to discuss their health or other concerns in private.
- Contact the worker if there is an unplanned absence from work. Explore their reasons for non-attendance with them. Offer support. Stay in contact with the worker in cases of prolonged absence to maintain the connection with the workplace.
- Seek assistance if you feel unable to provide positive support to an worker. This may be from your human resources department, rehabilitation case manager or through your organisation’s employee or manager assistance programs.
- If there has been a harassment or bullying complaint made against you by the worker, arrange for someone else, for example, HR personnel, to provide support to the worker.
- Involve the rehabilitation case manager if a worker needs assistance to return to work. They will help you work with the worker to resolve issues, facilitate recovery and develop a return to work plan.
- Provide flexible workplace options that enable the worker to be safe and productive at work (such as changes to the way the work is organised, additional support through a mentor or buddy, adjustments to work hours or duties). Ensure that the worker is fully involved in planning options and has co-ownership of job-related decisions.
- Meet with the worker on return to work. Welcome them back, confirm their contribution was missed and provide an update about developments that have occurred in their absence. Agree on any changes to the organisation of their work and how this should be communicated to the team.
- Provide ongoing support until the worker has reached their former functional level.
For more information, see our early intervention checklist.
Supporting your workers during times of change
Organisation and workplace change can be challenging, and if not managed well, can affect morale and engagement. Consequences may include:
- reduced work performance
- increased absenteeism
- potential for psychological or other injuries that may result in workers' compensation claims.
During times of organisational change it is important to consider the mental health and wellbeing of workers as part of an integrated approach to risk management and corporate planning. This includes considering workers who are away from the workplace as a result of injury or illness or taking part in a rehabilitation program.
Training for managers
We provide training through our learning management system called Comcare LMS.
To access our training, you first need to create an account in Comcare LMS (see the steps to create an account). Then, select the training item that you are interested in and login with your email and password.
Mode: Calendar and In-house
Mode: Calendar and In-house
For more information about the training we offer, see Training and learning.
- Supervisor - supporting return to work - core capabilities (PDF, 127.0 KB) – defines the capabilities required of a supervisor to effectively support recovery at work following an injury.