Creating Safety Bridges vs. Safety Silos – An EHS Opportunity to Improve

Safety Bridges vs. Safety Silos

All company staff and support functions (e.g., HR, Quality, Procurement, IT, etc.) are subject to silo building.  But silos are inefficient and can cause extra expenses while isolating company functions into unintegrated sects that act in their own interest more than they align with overall company priorities. These serious impediments to worker engagement and team building end up weakening trust in company leadership and deadening motivation for culture change. 

Unfortunately, after 40 years of assessing organizational safety efforts, I’ve concluded that safety personnel are perhaps more prone to silo building than any other support area. Why does this trend exist? Why is safety so regularly segregated from other business endeavors? How did safety development come to be prioritized lower than other essential organizational functions such as sales, production, quality, customer satisfaction, etc.?

The safety profession does often seem to be the principal contractor for its silo.  This may be in part due to the safety profession’s traditional gravitation towards gimmicks, contests, posters, slogans, quick fixes, and flavor-of-the-month training campaigns, which greatly contribute to the view that the safety program within a business is separate and less serious than other company functions.

The most observed problem at the core of safety silos is confusion between safety staff responsibilities and line management responsibilities. LinkedIn statistics indicate that many safety practitioners see themselves as personally responsible for establishing and leading workplace safety. This belief (that may equate to no more than delusions of grandeur) is an unsustainable role reversal, and safety staff very often find themselves “owning” the entire company safety effort to the exclusion of those truly responsible. As a result, safety is pushed into a staff silo—separate, unequal, and unintegrated into the workings of the business.

When companies abdicate their responsibility for safety by delegating it to a staff function, they create a dysfunctional safety system. Safety professionals are staff, not line management. Outside of their department, safety professionals do not have the authority to hire, fire, pay, promote, or supervise workers. Having no power to actively contribute to any of the parameters of an organization’s work (e.g., price, schedule, delivery, customer satisfaction, quality, etc.), how can accountability for workplace safety performance be enforced? Disregarding this quandary, ads for safety positions will often include such job responsibilities as:

  • “ensures compliance with all H&S regulatory requirements”;
  • “ensures safe and continuous operations”;
  • “implements all OS&H programs, policies, and procedures”;
  • “enforces health and safety regulatory standards”; and
  • “is responsible for creating a safety culture throughout the company.” 

All these misplaced expectations are management responsibilities, making them impossible to accomplish within the boundaries of a safety silo. Unfortunately, some safety departments lean into this rampant mismanagement issue, compounding the silo problem by willingly hoovering up as many duties and staff as they can to enhance their status and perceived importance to the organization.  

Shortly before his death, safety legend Dan Petersen said that he considered his contribution to taking “safety out of the safety manager’s hands” his most important legacy (Professional Safety, 2007). Petersen was not trying to diminish the importance of safety professionals; he was merely emphasizing safety partnerships as their proper role, not safety implementation. In all my experience, I’ve never seen results when safety efforts are primarily in the hands of the safety team. Successful and sustainable safety is a company-wide effort, led by management and supported by everyone within the organization.

Safety is a team sport and requires active participation from every player. Effective workplace safety is far too big a responsibility for any safety staff.  Trying to do all things safety from a staff position is about as productive as trying to push a rope. Additionally, safety silos within an organization serve only to disengage both workers and managers from the safety effort. To counter the creation of safety silos, we should look for every opportunity to make safety a unifying effort, integrating it into every facet of the business and involving every employee.  Safety professionals play a major role as partners with other managers and employees, giving them the tools and training they need to develop and improve the safety system.  Safety professionals teaching managers and workers the necessary skills of hazard recognition, accident investigation, root cause analysis, and ways to solve organizational safety problems through teamwork will pay far greater dividends than endeavoring to be personally responsible for the entire safety effort. Attempting to run safety from a silo enables a counterproductive mentality in managers, positively reinforcing their participation only in business activities that interest them (generally not safety) and leaving the workers as disinterested bystanders.  The result is dysfunctional codependency.  For overall safety program success, it is best to encourage points of connection between all employees and safety systems, building bridges rather than silos.

Author Bio

Jim Loud

Mr. Loud’s over 40 years of safety experience includes 15 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he served as the supervisor of Safety and Loss Control for a large commercial nuclear facility and later as manager of the corporate nuclear safety oversight body for all three of TVA’s nuclear sites. At Los Alamos National Laboratory he headed the independent assessment organization responsible for safety, health, environmental protection, and security oversight of all laboratory operations.

Mr. Loud is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferences. He is the author of numerous papers and articles. Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.

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