How to Break Down Silos and Improve Safety


Safety professional woman trying to see over her blue cubicle wall but it's too high

Organizations of all sizes have safety challenges related to their internal communications. In large groups, it can be difficult to ensure that each project’s stakeholders understand the facts they need to be successful. In small groups, where employees wear many hats and time is at a premium, it can be hard to make check-ins a priority.

As a safety professional, it is your job to ensure that silos – or containers – of information do not inhibit productivity, risk reduction or a supportive company culture. Silos do exactly what their name suggests: They restrict facts and insights relevant to several individuals or teams within one insular group.

“Unfortunately, no organization is immune to silos,” says Lindsay Bell, M.P.H., CSP, site environmental health and safety manager at Sherwin-Williams. “People become so involved in their own deliverables that they lose sight of the bigger picture and become blind to the points of view held by other departments.”

This is where the communication breakdown begins, Bell continues, and it’s up to an organization’s leaders to create goals that unify workers. But even when safety leaders are part of critical conversations within a company, they sometimes leave emerging safety professionals out of the loop. When that occurs, emerging professionals end up tackling new projects before they have all the necessary data.

“Emerging professionals are typically new to the team and are eager to prove their value in the organization,” Bell says. “This can cause them to have tunnel vision when it comes to achieving safety targets and completing strategic initiatives.”

No matter where you are in your career, now is a great time to improve safety and knowledge-sharing at your organization. Bell has three tips that can help get you started.

1. Reduce Your Distance

Getting to know coworkers in other departments will not only make your day-to-day interactions simpler and more pleasant, it will also make you better at your job. For emerging professionals and those starting new positions, this first step is even more essential.

“To improve safety, you have to understand why incidents occur,” Bell says. “To learn why incidents occur, you need to understand how and where your process is failing. To learn why a process is failing, you need to understand the human, quality, cost maintenance and customer service inputs that feed it.”

Connecting with people who perform roles different from yours will take time. Scheduling one meeting to ask them questions about their responsibilities is a good start, but it won’t help you get to the heart of their experience. After all, responsibilities, workflows and titles change frequently in any company. To be successful, it’s important to make casual, cross-functional conversations part of your workplace routine.

“Over time, these discussions can uncover all sorts of valuable information,” Bell adds. “Be genuinely interested, and share safety perspectives that may help them achieve their aims.”

2. Reiterate the Common Goal

It may be up to your organization’s leaders to create a strategic plan, but it’s your responsibility to align safety and health with what other teams are doing and to be a unifying force whenever you can. No one enjoys sounding like a broken record, but it can feel satisfying to find ways to keep you and your colleagues headed in the same direction.

“The idea of quality versus production versus safety must end,” Bell says. “If your goal is to safely produce 100 quality widgets, ask your coworkers, ‘How can I help you safely produce 100 widgets today?’”

By offering to help, she continues, you have already demonstrated that you want to achieve the same outcomes. Safety professionals who are successful in communicating across functional divides provide administrative and technical support that helps their companies produce quality work and protect people on the job.

Showing vocal support of the executive agenda could yield even higher dividends for emerging professionals at the beginning of their careers. Silos enable “sandbox wars” that devastate organizations, Bell says. If you can show that the safety team’s objectives are in service of the bigger picture, the C-suite is bound to notice.

3. Build a Culture of Gratitude

“It’s difficult for staff to prioritize communication and collaboration when they feel underappreciated,” Bell says.

This cultural problem could have significant implications for your safety program and operations within your company overall. So how can safety professionals use their influence and leadership skills to turn the tide? Bell recommends focusing on gratitude as an organizational value.

“Publicly recognize your coworkers for their contributions to your projects, and acknowledge when they make an additional effort to get things done,” she says. “This isn’t about being a generous and polite colleague. It’s about encouraging your team to consider the interdependency of everyone’s work.”

Creating cultural change takes time, but you can measure your success along the way. Bell says that in addition to claims and operational metrics such as overall equipment effectiveness and unplanned downtime – which are used to identify areas of opportunity for incident reduction – safety professionals should keep an eye on worker overtime and absenteeism.

“High rates of absenteeism are an early indication of problems within your workplace culture,” she continues. “While individuals may have legitimate reasons for absence, the combined trends of absenteeism and overtime will help you measure the morale of the workforce.”

Want to learn new strategies and solutions to solve some of your biggest occupational safety and health challenges? Join your peers at Safety 2021.

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