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Leadership at All Levels

Breaking Down Construction Safety Silos

Tricia Kagerer | November 17, 2023

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Illustrated construction site from a distance and reflected in water below it

A career in construction risk management was not my plan. I didn't study risk finance or major in risk management. Through a career in claims, opportunities continued to present themselves, leading to a safety role and eventually into risk management. As an executive, a recurring observation is that many organizations tend to be reactive instead of proactive when it comes to safety. Safety is the great afterthought. Devastating historical events have shaped how companies address safety and unsafe work environments today.

Point One: The Historical Perspective

Since the Industrial Revolution, a series of catastrophic events has compelled companies to address life-threatening safety hazards. In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory chose to combat theft by locking their doors while employees worked. When a fire broke out, 500 employees were trapped inside, leading to the deaths of 146 employees.

It wasn't until people experienced catastrophic injuries that safety became a priority. Seat belts were invented in 1885 but were not mandated until 1985. Imagine letting your toddler stand up in the backseat of your vehicle without a car seat. It is unthinkable now. I remember at 4 years' old driving from New York to El Paso, Texas, in the back of a station wagon and spending the entirety of the trip lying down in the "way back" with my collie named Bonnie. Probably one of the best road trips of my life, but arguably one of the most dangerous.

Delays in recognizing the importance of safety in a fundamental technology, like cars, are emblematic of a broader historical trend.

Some sectors of the construction industry continue to perceive safety as an afterthought. It wasn't until 1974, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was founded, that regulations were implemented to legally protect workers. These rules were implemented separately from existing operations, creating a disjointed approach to safety. OSHA is a compliance-driven organization, with minimal guidance on safety protocols. Even after 50 years, some companies still struggle to comply with basic safety regulations.

Organizational silos isolate the essential department functions into unintegrated sectors that prioritize their own interests rather than aligning with the company's overall goals.

Point Two: Is Safety Siloed in Your Organization?

Safety is an investment. OSHA studies indicate that for every $1 invested in construction safety programs, there is an average return on investment of $5 as illness, injuries, and fatalities decline. However, the efforts don't always yield the desired result.

A midsized construction company experienced a high frequency of accidents and fatalities. It had a safety manager on staff and a compliance program that met OSHA standards, but employees were still getting hurt. The frustrated management team blamed the safety manager, deeming him ineffective. However, several other factors had a far greater influence than the safety manager.

  • The company had a very high turnover rate, the workforce was relatively new, and they focused heavily on general labor.
  • Job-specific orientation was nonexistent, and there was little effort to educate field workers.
  • If the project management team knew of an accident, the team reported it to human resources, who called the insurance broker to handle the claim. Once filed, the project and safety team were not involved in the outcome of the claim.
  • Root cause analysis and lessons-learned activities did not involve the project teams and typically resulted in human error causation.
  • High turnover rates and the absence of proper training and education for field workers were disregarded when considering the factors contributing to incidents.

If you suspect that safety is siloed in your organization, consider these five telltale signs.

  • Safety outcomes are not discussed at the executive level.
  • Safety is not integrated into various aspects, including risk management; legal; insurance; claims; wellness; diversity, equity, and inclusion; training; and education.
  • Safety is not considered during design, estimating, operations, or trade partner management planning.
  • Safety is viewed as an expense rather than an essential part of the business.
  • The blame for safety-related issues falls solely on the safety department.

These signs indicate a fragmented approach to safety, hindering its effectiveness.

Point Three: The Missed Business Opportunity

"Safety culture" has been the buzzword for the last 20 years. Unfortunately, it can become a slogan or a crutch, something to blame when a catastrophe happens.

Silos are not just an operational challenge; they can lead to life-and-death scenarios and missed business opportunities. When companies achieve integration, safety encompasses more than the standard inspections, observations, and incidents. Safety can be the conduit for additional programs, such as total worker health, psychological safety, and organizational performance. However, without intentional action at the highest levels of the company, integration is hindered, and opportunities for growth are extinguished.

Many safety professionals have been pigeonholed into thinking their role in an organization is limited, and they do not have influence over the profitability and outcomes of incidents and claims. This is only true when leaders in an organization fail to recognize the value of incorporating safety into all aspects. A safety manager is the gateway to the field and project teams. There are experienced and highly knowledgeable employees that are untapped talent for the companies to utilize. 1

Organizations miss out on the transformative growth that can lead to better outcomes and increased profitability. Integrating safety from the start can be a catalyst for organizational success. The support and challenge leaders provide can influence a company's ability to fully integrate safety into all business operations.

Point Four: The Impact of Four Leadership Styles on Operational Excellence

Leadership plays a significant role in determining the approach to safety within an organization. These four leadership styles can influence safety outcomes.

Dominator: High Challenge, Low Support

With a domineering leader, silos prevail, and employees are led with an iron fist. Safety is an expectation, but it lacks the necessary planning and integration into operational decisions. Silos thrive with the lack of communication between departments. Safety is an outsider that is out of touch with incidents, risk management, financing decisions, and training. The safety professional defines success by creating reports measuring observations, audits, and tracking incident rates.

The iron fist leadership style predominates both construction and the stereotypical safety manager. This type of leadership seeks results. The iron fist tends to make decisions alone, in small groups, or through top-down decision-making. This type of leadership creates an uncomfortable environment where disciplinary action is used as a motivator for field workers. The iron fist style of leading tends to restrict communication and can lead to poor decision-making. Experienced field workers with invaluable skills are silenced, and their ideas are rarely considered. The iron fist method is viewed as lacking empathy for others, which can lead to a bad reputation.

The safety manager shows up on a project, and through intimidation and write-ups, he whips the safety back into shape. Safety managers are perceived to be effective because people comply when they are present. When incidents occur, the tendency is to blame the worker.

Protector: High Support, Low Challenge

Under a protective leadership style, the safety professional is expected to be all-knowing and solely responsible for hazardous events that take place. They provide a great deal of support to project management teams and field workers, which creates and builds trust. Unfortunately, by taking responsibility for everything, the protector method perpetuates the silos.

There is little accountability for missing deadlines, underperforming, or taking risky shortcuts. Management hesitates to set clear expectations to maintain a supportive culture at all costs. Change is difficult because the workforce is reluctant to take on new challenges. They prefer comfort, even if it hinders progress or results in rework and incidents.

Signs of the protector company culture include the failure to implement projects, rework, and incidents without repercussions. Departments trying to address issues lack a clear plan or united vision for the outcome.

Abdicator: Low Support, Low Challenge

The abdicator leadership style creates a culture of apathy and low expectations. The company fails to take responsibility for its actions, decisions, or the well-being of its employees. There is a culture of shifting blame and evading accountability at all levels of the organization. The safety function is told to not interfere and not be consulted during incident management or claims.

The organization limits support to safety, focusing on the bare minimum. Training, if provided, is to check a box. Perhaps training is an old video that covers the basics, or workers are provided a checklist and asked to sign it without any explanation. Workers are not empowered to report issues for fear of reprisal. Departmentally, the silos blame each other for the issues, but there is little to no accountability.

Liberator: High Support, High Challenge

In a culture of high support and challenge, the goal is to fight for the highest possible good of the organization. The safest companies in the world today successfully integrate safety to achieve operational excellence. Safety management is elevated to a trusted adviser role, as an expert in eliminating failures and minimizing the risk of harm to the workforce.

A liberated leader expands the definition of safety to include psychological safety, where people are encouraged and expected to collaborate, listen, and empower everyone in the organization to take ownership. They have established valid communication channels to ensure the executive team hears directly from those closest to the work. They have what they need to perform their jobs to the best of their ability with the least risk of harm. 2

Point Five: How To Change—The Leadership Flywheel

Imagine a flywheel in motion; it's remarkably productive, generating and building upon its energy. To achieve organizational excellence—not safety excellence—our goal is to create an environment where a flywheel is spinning, self-propelled, and constantly gaining momentum.

The issue arises when the role of safety is siloed. The siloed safety professional can have the best strategy, but the best it can ever hope to achieve in this scenario is compliance. Compliance alone never leads to operational excellence. Instead, it fosters a culture of accepting the status quo. The saying that culture eats strategy for lunch rings true.

Five components working in motion propel the flywheel, leading a company toward operational excellence.

  • Communication occurs when a team is thriving, invigorated, and performing exceptionally well. In the realm of construction safety, it's exemplified by a project where safety is an integral part of the design, the project is clean, and trade partners' work is sequenced to achieve the most efficient critical path. Rework and delays are the exception, not the norm. When they occur, they are elevated and mitigated early. Problems are identified and discussed—safety becomes a fundamental part of how the project is built.

    Good communication leads to the development of relationships.

  • Relationships are built on trust, which is earned through effective communication and consistent performance. An environment lacking trust is a breeding ground for gossip and turf wars. For example, trade partners want to know they will be paid on time for their work and that their workforce will be treated fairly while on a project. Superintendents can make or break that relationship by how they lead the project. If they exclude a trade, fail to set expectations, and place unreasonable demands, the relationship will be strained.

    Building on communication and relationships, we set the groundwork for engagement. Engaged employees feel their ideas are valued, and it is a safe environment to openly communicate with others. Teams with established trust can create an environment conducive to psychological safety. This leads to stronger relationships, organizational unity, and minimal turnover.

    Relationships naturally lead to alignment.

  • Alignment occurs when there is a general consensus on the organization's vision, strategy, and goals. Symptoms of misalignment within your team include complacency, sarcasm, turnover, incidents, cynicism, and rework. Alignment maximizes execution, leading to high-performing teams.

  • Execution is a byproduct of alignment, where teams will accomplish more than any individual ever thought possible. A lack of execution leads to blown budgets, damaged relationships, and accidents. In construction, we know the projects that fail to execute, and we can track the fee fade, rework, and defaults on the balance sheet. It also takes a toll on everyone working on the project. Projects that are executed flawlessly are profitable, rewarding to employees, and have safety at the forefront.

  • Capacity expands when the leadership flywheel is in motion. When a team has low capacity, there is no relational trust, and the team will give you minimal results. Signs of low capacity include burnout, turnover, missed opportunities, and stagnation. Organizations with momentum and a workforce at full capacity exemplify an open, thriving, and aligned team.

The most common mistake leaders make is skipping over communication and relationships and focusing primarily on alignment and execution. Under stress, leaders may resort to fear and manipulation tactics. The result is often dysfunction, preventing the propelling of a healthy flywheel. Instead of a green, smoothly spinning flywheel, it remains in the red, barely moving. When leadership focuses excessively on alignment and execution, it is often disappointed in results and doubts the capacity of its teams, stalling all opportunities for growth. 3


Departmental silos hinder an organization's ability to experience radical growth, and safety cannot be an afterthought when it comes to the prevention of catastrophic events. It took an engineer and inventor to create the seat belts, but it took an entire industry to embrace and implement them into cars, just as it will take an entire organization to fully integrate safety into all business operations.

When companies disassemble silos, safety has the capability to encompass more than the standard inspections, observations, and incidents. Safety can be the conduit for additional programs, such as total worker health, psychological safety, and organizational performance. Without intentional action at the highest levels of the company, integration is hindered, and opportunities for growth are extinguished. Strive for a future where safety is seamlessly woven into the fabric of our organizations, creating a safer, more inclusive, and more prosperous environment.

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.


1 Rosa Antonia Carrillo, OHS Voices from the Resistance, Carrillo & Associates, September 22, 2023.
2 Jeremie Kubicek and Steve Cockram, The Communication Code, John Wiley & Sons, November 1, 2023.
3 Kubicek and Cockram.