How a supervisor handles a report of an employee’s on-the-job injury may be the most important factor in whether the injured worker has a rapid return to work or a prolonged disability, according to a new study by the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety.

In a controlled case study involving 23 supervisors and about 800 workers, researchers found that supervisors who were trained to communicate and problem-solve with employees had 47 percent fewer new disability claims and they reduced active lost-time claims by 18 percent.

“Training supervisors can improve a safety program in two ways,” says LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Scott Schneider. “First, by giving supervisors information and developing skills that they need to know, and second, by showing that management has a strong commitment to safety.”

The Liberty Mutual study was conducted in the food processing industry where highly physical work is the norm. Most of the injury claims were work-related, soft-tissue disorders, including sprains, strains, inflammations, carpal tunnel syndrome and other cumulative trauma. Typically, these are also the most common and costly injuries in construction.

For the study, researchers divided the supervisors at a food processing plant into two groups. Each group received a four-hour training workshop that focused on how to communicate with injured workers and how to make ergonomic accommodations to help them get back to work. One group of supervisors, the intervention group, received the training at the beginning of the study; the other, the control group, seven months later.

After the first workshop, the intervention group experienced a 28 percent greater reduction in new claims (compared to an earlier period) than the untrained control group. That training was the basis of this difference was further confirmed by a 19 percent reduction in new claims among the control group after its supervisors received the training workshop.

“In this study, we saw a substantial reduction in injury claim frequency and disability,” said William Shaw, Ph.D., the lead investigation researcher at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute. “Supervisors clearly learned new skills and expressed confidence that they could better deal with these issues.”

In construction, many supervisors are promoted from among the construction workforce. Others come from management ranks, sometimes beginning management careers straight out of college or by moving over from another industry. Thus, appreciation for health and safety can vary significantly from supervisor to supervisor.

To help signatory employers improve safety leadership on the job, the LHSFNA OSH staff can provide supervisor and safety officer training for signatory employers or through associations of construction contractors.

Also, the Laborers-AGC Education and Training Fund offers the Supervisor Education and Training Program (STEP), for which the LHSFNA contributed the health and safety module. Among the many other modules in the program is one on supervisor communication skills. Contact Laborers-AGC (860-974-0800) for more information on STEP.

For more information on health and safety training for management personnel, contact the OSH Division at 202-628-5465.