Position of Influence

Where does safety belong on the organizational chart?

By Ashley Johnson, associate editor

  • Safety often was grouped with human resources, but that changed as the profession expanded to address culture, behavior and systems
  • Problems can arise if safety is positioned too deep within an organization or if the manager lacks respect or knowledge of safety issues.
  • Safety professionals caution against focusing solely on compliance or taking on too many unnecessary responsibilities.

Many employers recognize workplace safety as an important business consideration. Opinions differ, however, on the best place for safety in the corporate structure. Should safety sit on the senior leadership team or report up through another function, such as human resources, finances, facilities or legal? Some safety professionals say the answer depends on the individual organization, while others offer a simple solution: “Safety first” means safety reports directly to the top. No situation is perfect; every reporting relationship comes with distinct advantages and challenges. Learning to navigate them is critical to the success of safety professionals. “You have to understand how your company is organized and how [environmental, health and safety] can best support that,” said Mary Joann “Majo” Thurman, director of environmental, health and safety for Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation Inc.

Indication of importance

Historically, safety was seen as an HR issue. But employers began thinking differently about safety professionals as their role shifted from being narrowly focused on safety to addressing culture, behaviors and systems, according to Donald Groover, senior vice president at Behavioral Science Technology Inc., a safety consulting firm headquartered in Ojai, CA.

“By [safety professionals] breaking out of just being that technical expert or that ‘rules enforcer’ it has forced organizations to look at that position and say … ‘Where are they best positioned to have the greatest leverage in our organization?’” Groover said. Groover has noticed that safety typically reports up through HR or legal, or a senior operational leader such as the vice president of EHS, who then reports to the COO. He prefers the latter option. “People still look at reporting as an indication of importance, and changing where someone reports and moving them closer to the top does send a very loud message to the organization,” Groover said. However, with greater access comes greater responsibility. “The other thing is it does put an increased burden on the safety person themselves,” he added, “because if you have direct access to very high levels of the organization, you have to be very careful with what you say and what you decide to bring to their attention. It does carry the obligation of ‘let’s not bring the trivial to that level.’” Ralph Stuart, environmental safety manager at the University of Vermont in Burlington, said an organization’s history and factors such as regulatory pressure, building codes, accidents and workers’ compensation influence where safety professionals report.

Part of the team

When Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy centralized its safety function as part of the company’s reorganization in January 2009, Linda Limberg, senior director of safety and training, saw immediate benefits. “I think one of the biggest advantages of our new structure is that we report directly to the CEO,” Limberg said. “It gives safety automatic credibility.”

Before, safety was organized by the business units, and each unit had its own safety department. That made communication a challenge for the large organization, which has roughly 11,000 employees in eight states. “We were very linear, very within our own units, not talking to each other across the company, and this cuts right through that,” Limberg said. “The opportunity to be able to leverage those safety programs across the enterprise has been huge.” According to Ed Bulakites, manager of environment health and safety for the eastern region of Otis Elevator Co. in Farmington, CT, positioning safety near the top ensures safety goals are part of the larger business agenda. “Being considered a member of the senior leadership team, basically it makes you part of the team,” he said. “Oftentimes, the safety person is seen as someone who is off in their own little world doing their thing … as opposed to someone who is working towards the same goals as the rest of the team.”

Another advantage is that the safety professional has an opportunity to weigh in on projects early. Otherwise, if a project advances too far beyond the design phase before safety gets involved, it can be difficult to persuade people to stop work and spend money on changes, warned Bob French, an independent consultant in Houston. “Clearly, safety is an integral part of the business and everybody tries to build it in,” French said, “but at some point there can be risk-management decisions made that may not be popular with the business, so it’s just important that you have equal footing when you get to those positions.”

‘Different disciplines’

French, who has worked in the chemical and petroleum industry for 40 years, cited several potential problems if safety does not report straight to upper management: the safety professional could become insulated at a low level, safety is not the manager’s primary concern, and that person may or may not have the background necessary to understand safety issues. Bob Estadt has experience in that situation. As a safety analyst at Fairfax County Wastewater Collection Division in northern Virginia, he reports to human resources and is the lone safety professional for about 140 employees. “Human resources and safety are obviously different disciplines,” Estadt said. “When you have a question or need help, you can’t go to your manager for answers. They can only give you general management advice. They can just give you a commonsense approach to something, but they don’t have the technical background to offer you any practical assistance. That, to me, has always been the chief downfall of reporting to human resources.”

He noted, however, that his organization may have few structural alternatives in the absence of a multilayered safety staff. By contrast, Rockwell Automation, which has about 19,000 employees worldwide, operates within a matrix structure. Thurman said she reports to the legal department with a strong responsibility to the senior vice president of operations “for a little bit of checks and balances as a compliance function.” At the plant level, safety reports to the plant manager. The positioning ensures safety is an integrated decision point and provides increased visibility and accountability, Thurman said.

Professional pitfalls

One reason the organizational chart matters is because placement helps define the scope of the safety program. “Depending on who you report to, they’ll either perceive you as a service part of the organization or as an oversight part of the organization,” said UVM’s Stuart. Reporting also affects which numbers – such as how many employees complete training or the rate of injury – are used to measure success.

While a safety professional’s specific responsibilities can differ by industry and organization, there are some common professional pitfalls to avoid. Limberg called it a “big mistake” to focus solely on compliance without taking into consideration how people behave. “You’re missing a huge opportunity to make your company a better place to work,” she said. Groover agreed. “I find that real problematic when it’s obvious in an organization the only reason that the safety person is there is to make sure that we comply with regulations or to reduce workers’ comp,” he said. Likewise, he cautioned against performing “non-value-added activities” that take away from time in the field. For example, ordering safety supplies or keeping track of points for an incentive program. “Those are the types of things I clearly would say ‘no’ to,” Groover said. “I’m not going to be a storeroom for safety gear. I’ll identify what we need, I’ll make recommendations for the styles and types, but I’m not going to be administrator for [personal protective equipment].”

Challenging relationships

At some point in their careers, many safety professionals face difficult reporting relationships. Perhaps their manager does not understand safety or lacks respect within the organization. Those situations can limit the success of the safety program, but safety professionals can overcome them with proper communication and partnerships. As Groover said, “I’ve never believed that it’s a valid excuse to say, ‘I’m the way I am because I have a poor boss.’” As manager of health and safety at the division level of a chemical company, Groover reported to human resources on paper but always dealt with the vice president of operations or the president. “We had very supportive people at that level around safety. So if you have a culture that values safety, the reporting is probably not that critical,” he said.

Thurman’s advice is to partner with human resources to understand the organizational structure, and to remain flexible. She said it took her four years to achieve the best arrangement for Rockwell’s safety department. Most important, look for someone to support safety, even if that relationship is not outlined on paper. “You really do have to look for that executive sponsor,” Thurman said. “Who has a little passion and interest and will help you get it done?” she said. If the manager lacks expertise in safety, Stuart recommended providing him or her with a quick education on safety issues and a well-rounded explanation of the forces impacting the safety program. Ultimately, that person’s integrity – not position – will define the organization’s efforts regarding safety.

“You can be the best safety professional in the world, but if you’re reporting to someone who undercuts the program,” Stuart said, “then the safety program is going to be limited in its success.”

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