Safety Suffers in Corporate Silos

SiloThe idea – and the complaint – that safety and health departments operate out of organizational “silos” has been around for decades. You can trace it back to the creation of OSHA in 1971. Safety and health then became a compliance policing function in many companies. And many employers were angered at OSHA’s sudden intrusion into their operations. As a result, management put safety and health departments and personnel in a silo separated from mainstream business activity. For some employers angered at OSHA, the further distance between safety and the rest of the operations, the better. And so, in a number of business-case scenarios, began safety’s segregation – a cause of frustration, resentment and insecurity for many safety and health professionals that persists to this day.


But the silo syndrome or mentality in corporations does not single out safety and health. Organizations of the twenty-first century continue to rely on time-tested forms of organizational structure built during the twentieth century, and perhaps the most common is the cultural cluster of silos. The idea is rooted in the towering grain silos that dominate the North American plains, protecting wheat and corn from rain and snow. It’s important that different grains remain separate, and hard to get at. There is also a logic and purpose to organizational silos. Businesses generally are organized by vertical axes of specialization: manufacturing, IT, human resources, legal, sales, marketing, engineering, quality, accounting, finance, customer service, R&D – and environmental, safety and health protection.


It makes a certain sense to organize an enterprise into operating silos. Departments or areas of expertise that are set up in silos promote independent thinking, entrepreneurship, ownership and accountability. Some organizational management experts believe that silos are necessary and occur naturally, if not by the owner’s or CEO’s design. It’s human nature – experts say: “Everyone wants to play in their own sandbox.” It’s also natural that talented, competitive, and ambitious “Type A” managers want to climb to the top of their particular silo of influence to be in a position of command and control. Those at the top of an organizational silo possess power, protect their territory, and make decisions that cascade down the silo through “middle managers” and supervisory levels to the base of the silo, where rank-and-file employees often make no decisions, offer no input, and have no autonomy.


Silos dominate the corporate landscape and are embedded in corporate cultures, according to some organizational management authorities, because their structure is logical and cultivates the natural human tendency to draw boundaries, protect one’s territory and power base, and band together people (employees) with similar skills, tasks, and outlooks.


Short-sighted silo commanders

The power broker at the top of any particular organizational silo can be protective and possessive, believing, “I’ve fought to get this job. I’ve been given the position to run things as I see fit. That’s why they put me here.” Many “silo commanders” take pride in their expertise, their power, and an orderly and efficient silo operation that makes valuable contributions to the corporate entity.


But often these bosses are so preoccupied with their own goals, strategies, decisions, allocation of resources, putting out fires, short-term objectives, etc., that they can’t see beyond their own silo. They don’t see, and are not particularly interested in, the equally important contributors of the corporation’s other silo commanders. This disconnect can be ultimately disastrous for companies, leading to redundancies, waste, inefficiencies, unnecessary costs, lack of trust, lack of communication and knowledge transfer, legal compliance problems, “the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing,” a deteriorating reputation in the marketplace, and confused and frustrated customers turning to other vendors.


Meanwhile, in the lower reaches of the silo, employees often feel as though they are in the dark. Rigid command and control protocols and policies and narrow, one-way communication channels leave them out of the loop, disempowered and disengaged. They feel alienated, ignored, underappreciated, not recognized nor rewarded for their performance, and consequently, they are not motivated.


Silo confinement

An internal silo psychology and emotional intelligence develops within the hearts and minds of employees. It is formed from their experiences and feelings, and becomes a type of “muscle memory” or matter of habit. Employees don’t see the bigger corporate picture, plan, or vision, and don’t expect to. They become accustomed to their silo confinement – passive, robotic, and operating on autopilot, according to some organizational management experts.


Companies structured around clusters of silos can experience serious safety and health consequences. Disempowered, disengaged employees who are demoralized and unmotivated are accidents waiting to happen. Operating on muscle memory and running on autopilot, they lack situational awareness, mindfulness, and safety consciousness. They can take risks for granted. They overlook hazards. They neglect to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). They take shortcuts. Ignore or resist safety rules for confined space entry or lockout-tagout of energized machinery. They are not motivated to report near misses they may witness, broken machine guards, dangerously poor lighting, or to step up and address the at-risk behavior of a coworker through a one-on-one conversation.


In terms of health and wellness, employees trapped in silos can allow apathy and a sense of powerlessness to lead to unhealthy lifestyle choices – lack of exercise, poor diet, alcohol abuse, tobacco abuse, and drug abuse – all of which in turn can lead to obesity, diabetes, sleep apnea, fatigue, depression, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. The result: higher absenteeism, presenteeism (being on the job but distracted and less productive), higher healthcare and medical costs, and an increase in accidents.


Shaking up the silo psychology

One solution to this threatening safety climate is for the safety and health department to arrange for a recognition and rewards program. Safety departments can draw on a long history of incentive contests and programs, which have been staples of safety management since long before the dawn of OSHA. But traditional attempts to arouse safety awareness by offering money or gifts have often been flawed. Incentives have been retroactively rewarded after a period of injury-free work days has been achieved. Or, an outsized incentive, such as a paid vacation to Hawaii or a 14-foot motorboat displayed in the office lobby, is randomly awarded to just one employee if the entire workforce reaches a zero-injury milestone. The result: employees hide injuries, do not report them, and exert peer pressure on coworkers to conceal injuries. Or, employees feel they have little chance to win the big prize, believe the “competition” is unfair, and go about their work without any change in their behaviors and attitudes.


OSHA’s stance on incentives

OSHA in recent years has taken note of these flawed incentive programs and agency officials have spoken out against programs that lead to under-reporting of injuries. At the same time, OSHA’s current chief, Dr. David Michaels, has voiced support for incentive programs that recognize and reward proactive safety performance measures, such as near-miss reporting, finding and fixing hazards, and bringing audit findings to closure.


The problem with multiple efforts to motivate

The silo syndrome can also lead to multiple incentive programs that are ultimately divisive. The manager of HR may decide to give every department employee the day off for their birthday. Employees in other “silos” or departments become jealous and complain. Salespeople may receive bonuses for breaking monthly quotas. Other employees have no chance at earning extra income. The R&D department might hold an annual dinner for “innovators of the year” while employees elsewhere in the organization have no opportunity to receive recognition. Manufacturing can offer incentives for surpassing productivity goals; quality can award incentives for reducing levels of defect rates; wellness programs might offer free gym memberships to the biggest weight losers; and customer service can incentivize the number of calls handled per hour—yet other departments in the same organization may not budget any dollars or time for recognition and rewards.


This silo-by-silo, disorganized, inconsistent, and fragmented approach to motivating employees and recognizing and rewarding performance has a number of negative consequences. There are needless redundancies. Money and time is wasted. Employees are confused, angered and/or demoralized. A selfish mindset creeps in: “What’s in it for me?” “That’s not my problem.” Employees, supervisors and managers see no reason or urgency to change behaviors and attitudes, and they fall back on “muscle memory” and old habits.


Incentive and motivation programs are but one example of how organizational silos can lead to duplication of effort, duplication of cost outlays, wasted intelligence and subject-matter expertise, wasted economies of scale, insular thinking, close-minded groupthink, and a business that is obviously not firing on all cylinders. Silos can stunt creativity, innovation, communication, and transparency. They can breed fear, distrust, lack of confidence, lack of sharing, lack of purpose, and lack of vision. Obviously, corporations working with these handicaps are inefficient, less competitive, less profitable, and perhaps on the road to ruin.


Challenge silo thinking

The solution is not to bring in the wrecking ball to demolish the physical structures of corporate silos. Organizations are indeed built on various areas of expertise – R&D, IT, HR, sales, marketing, engineering, safety and health, etc. The solution is not to focus on external, physical boundaries, but rather the internal silo mentality or syndrome created by experiences, muscle memory, and the habitual “ways of doing things around here.” You want to change the culture of silo thinking.


President Kennedy did this in the early 1960s when he proclaimed, “By the end of the decade, we will put a man on the moon and safely return him to earth.” NASA had no choice; its departments and divisions had to collaborate every day to achieve something that had never been done before. Kennedy’s leadership set the vision and the unified agenda, and forced a bureaucratic culture to change.


The opportunity for safety and health pros

Safety and health professionals have unique opportunities to break through silo thinking and take the lead in information-sharing, cross-function activities; cross-department projects and initiatives; team problem-solving and decision-making; and total workforce engagement. Here are some examples:


1 – Safety has performance measures everyone can relate to. Not only department, business-unit and corporate-wide injury and illness rates (which only tell you what has already happened), but proactive metrics such as behavioral observations, near-miss reports, number of risks identified by all employees, average number of hours spent finding risks, number of risks addressed and eliminated, level of employee loyalty determined by surveys, and dollars spent to address and eliminate risks. These measures should be disseminated across the organization via platforms such as intranets, scoreboards, emails, eNewsletters, signage and social media.


2 – Safety cannot succeed, and a zero-incident culture cannot be achieved, without an engaged workforce. Success in other corporate silos also depends on workforce engagement. You need engaged employees to improve their own physical and mental fitness and lower healthcare costs; to improve customer service; to lower defect rates; to improve productivity; to shorten delivery times; and to more quickly execute and close maintenance work orders. Safety professionals can step out of their silos and meet and strategize with other “silo commanders” to develop a holistic, global total workforce engagement plan based on incentive recognition and rewards that are consistently and uniformly awarded for achievements within each silo.


Crossing turf boundaries, knocking on strangers’ doors, and “coalition building” is not easy. It takes personal courage. Networking. Allies. Perhaps it takes a leader such as former Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill, who firmly believed that safety-related problem-solving and teamwork could be models and pilot projects for deployment in every corner of the corporation. And unfortunately, sometimes shattering the silo mentality takes an emergency, a crisis, or a calamity – such as the tragedies of 9/11 forcing fragmented homeland security agencies to work together.


3 – Safety involves numerous activities that lend themselves to cross-functional participation. Safety audits, incident investigations, ergonomics, housekeeping, and the 5S methodology of work organization (sort, systematize, sweep, standardize and sustain) and finding and fixing hazards all benefit from diverse input and expertise coming from operations, engineering, maintenance, upper management, and line employees.


4 – Safety has natural tie-ins with other organizational activities and goals that cut across silos. Safety is a social issue with metrics that can be included in corporate sustainability indices. Safety’s emphasis on proactive prevention aligns with today’s increasing emphasis on employee health promotion and chronic disease prevention. Safety’s many training programs can be integrated into a corporate-wide learning management system. Corporate-wide cost-containment efforts should incorporate safety’s ongoing efforts to reduce workers’ compensation costs and medical costs, and property damage. And initiatives to shrink an operation’s energy footprint and pollution output can benefit from safety’s contributions to conserving resources, managing hazardous exposures and wastes, fleet traffic management, and increasing employees’ awareness of environmental conditions such as lighting, noise, vibration, air flow, air temperatures, ergonomic work processes, and energy use – in road travel, machinery, operating equipment and electrical systems.


All Star Incentive Marketing transforms the silo syndrome into total workforce engagement through cost-effective incentive, recognition and rewards programs proven to improve safety, drive sales, increase performance, build customer loyalty, and motivate employees.



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