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Leadership on the front line

Earlier this year, during European health and safety week, I was invited to take part in a roundtable discussion with senior figures from across the construction industry. Learning from the outstanding performance on the Olympic big build is still a major goal for significant projects in construction, so it was really good to see the London 2012 legacy feature prominently.

One of the key issues debated was the crucial role that first line supervisors play in creating the right health and safety culture.

I've heard many senior people say that getting the safety culture right is about what happens when they are not there. That's when the leadership of those first line supervisors becomes so critical.

The round table discussion reminded me of my own experience and some of the people I worked with in industry. They were pipefitters and electricians one day and promoted to first line management the next. It's a really difficult step up. The transition from being one of the lads to being the front line face of management can be tough. They're almost bound to face accusations of becoming "one of them" rather than "one of us". But those who make the transition successfully can have a huge impact on the safety culture.

Good first line supervisors are able to get the message across to their teams in the right way. They know how to connect with each member of their team and what really motivates each individual.

The Olympics Big Build success was founded on many things. But training and enabling first line supervisors to be real leaders was a very significant move, which made a huge contribution to creating the right culture and delivering performance. If you want proof of that watch the ODA's Learning Legacy video and listen to members of the workforce and first line supervisors talking about their personal pride in what they achieved.

Supervision is a vital role to get right to have an impact on health and safety. Not as something we do when the boss is looking, but part of how we do the job - all of the time. We talk a lot about the need for leadership in health and safety from the top of organisations but first line supervisors are leaders too and very important ones. They need training and support to be safety leaders.

I'm not arguing for them to become experts in health and safety law, it's much more about interpersonal skills and being able to feel comfortable talking to their workmates about how important it is for them to stop and think about doing the job safely - and going home to their partners and families at the end of every shift.