How Things Get Done
What OEHS Professionals Need to Know About Organizational Structure
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An organization’s structure is the format it uses to execute its business model based on criteria such as products and geography. The structure is set up to best serve the flow of information within the organization for cultural development, decision-making, and goals alignment. It also helps to define roles and responsibilities for employees and management.
It’s important for occupational and environmental health and safety professionals to understand organizational structures in order to work within and through these structures and the types of cultures and business models they foster. This article will explore four common types of organizational structures; discuss several AIHA members’ experiences, including my own, working within them; and analyze why this understanding is important to our profession.
TYPES OF ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURES According to entrepreneur Gennaro Cuofano, there are four types of structures commonly adopted by organizations: functional, divisional, matrix, and flat structures.
Functional Structure An organization with a functional structure is partitioned based on function, such as finance, human resources, information technology, legal, or marketing. Functional structures are frequently used within military organizations and large corporations. A disadvantage of this type of structure is that the different functional groups may not communicate with each another, which potentially decreases their flexibility and innovative abilities. A recent trend aimed to combat this disadvantage is the use of teams that cross traditional departmental lines.
OEHS professionals who are placed in one functional area may address communication challenges by developing generalized OEHS policies that can then be tailored to the operational needs of each functional area. These OEHS professionals will also need to become skilled networkers and will need to foster a focus on risk management for their organizations.
Divisional Structure Divisional structures separate various organizational functions into product or regional divisions. These structures are often used in international corporations or those with multiple product lines. Disadvantages of this structure type include operational inefficiencies that result from separating specialized functions—for example, finance personnel in one division do not communicate with those in another division.
OEHS professionals may be challenged to provide division-specific policies if they find themselves responsible for more than one division. Nonetheless, with a focus on risk management, sharing information for how one division approached an issue that affects all divisions may prove an OEHS professional’s worth as a colleague who can address a common concern.
A member of AIHA’s Leadership and Management Committee (LMC) who requested to remain anonymous works for an international automotive manufacturer that is divisionally organized into three geographic regions. This structure serves the business model of the company with respect to how product design and manufacturing, human resources, regulatory requirements, and overall culture differ in each region. The OEHS team has a direct reporting relationship to each region and provides informal program support and technical guidance to the corporate office. Since occupational health standards differ around the world, the most protective health and safety guidelines are applied in all regions.
“You have to understand the goals of the organization in order to effectively implement the workplace safety system,” this member said. “You also need to understand who your boss is, who your boss’s boss is, and so on, until you get to the top of the organization. We have several layers of direct report and many other dotted-line relationships at the same time.”
Many large corporations may implement functional structures for their corporate headquarters and divisional structures for their product lines’ operational entities.
Matrix Structure
In this type of organizational structure, individual employees are grouped by two operational frames, such as function and geographic region. Proponents of this structure suggest that matrix management is more dynamic than management in functional structures because it allows team members to share information more readily across task boundaries and for specialization that can increase depth of knowledge. A disadvantage of the matrix structure is the increased complexity in the chain of command that results when employees are assigned to managers for both operational frames. This can result in a higher manager-to-worker ratio, which, in turn, can increase costs or lead to conflicting employee loyalties. It can also create a decision-making gridlock if a manager on one side of the matrix disagrees with another. Ambiguous authority in an organization with a matrix structure can reduce agility in decision-making and conflict resolution.
Since the lessened agility of idea development could result in processes that have negative OEHS consequences, OEHS professionals serving within this type of structure may need to determine who are the leaders among the teams of employees and deputize them as “project risk managers.”
AIHA LMC Past Chair Carl Sall works for an international engineering consulting firm that uses a matrix structure. As a result, Sall reports to three operational presidents. To ensure consistency across the organization, the company implemented an ISO 45001 occupational health and safety management system and a common electronic reporting system for health and safety data. Because work projects vary significantly across this organization, health and safety functions are project specific, with oversight and guidance from the corporate health and safety team.
Flat Structure The flat structure, also known as a “flatarchy,” is less hierarchical but more decentralized and flexible than other structures. In an organization with a flat structure, managers coordinate and control relationships that are both internal and external to the firm with the goal of decision-making and ideas flowing from the “bottom” of the organization (that is, rank-and-file employees) to the “top” (leadership). This more fluid structure can lead to more complex relationships within the organization. Lines of accountability may be less clear, and reliance on external vendors can be quite high compared to other organizations. These potentially unpredictable variables essentially reduce the core company’s control over its operational success.
Similar to the matrix organizational structure, OEHS professionals working within flat organizational structures may address these disadvantages by assigning the role of operational risk manager to key players, preferably within the organization, who understand how the production aspects of the product or service are designed. An example of this structure may be a small start-up company that has multiple products under development.
I have worked in the management of a small consulting firm that had a flat organizational structure. In this case, there was less need for formal OEHS policies, since the employees worked in an office environment in which ergonomics, including material handling, workstation design, and emergency response, were addressed in person. Innovations to reduce material handling tasks, such as requesting the shipping company to pick up parcels for mailing instead of employees having to carry them to the shipping office, were ideas brought up and researched by the staff. I had multiple roles within this organization, from lead OEHS subject matter expert to company risk director.
Blended Structures Some organizations blend two or more structures. Many large corporations may implement functional structures for their corporate headquarters and divisional structures for their product lines’ operational entities. I observed a blended structure when employed as the risk and safety director of a large media company that had separate newspaper and television divisions. This structural split required me to build a generalized occupational safety and health policy for the overall company. Then, I tailored OEHS program support in different ways for the functional corporate entity, which primarily worked in an office environment, compared to the divisional entities, which operated both office and production environments.
I have also worked with a national newspaper separate from the entity in the previous example, that used a modified matrix management structure. News was reported and advertising was conducted by the newspaper’s regional subdivisions, but marketing was the responsibility of both national and regional offices. Meanwhile, the company’s regionally dispersed production division was controlled by each regional newspaper division but not the national newspaper itself. This required the OEHS program to coordinate across two different management structures within a single entity. One structure operated mainly through an office environment; the other was an offset printing operation, with all the noise, chemical, machine guarding, and material handling issues common to that industry.
Vicki Fulimeni, CIH, CSP, another LMC member, shared that her employer uses functional and divisional structures for headquarters and product lines, respectively, but a matrix structure for its global technology division due to greater ease of information and knowledge sharing. These different structures affect the OEHS team’s support to the global technology division in ways that are more complex than if the company had used a simple functional structure. More alignment and communication between stakeholders is necessary.
NAVIGATING ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE The ability to navigate an organization’s structure is a prime example of applying emotional intelligence skills within the social awareness category. More information about emotional intelligence can be found in The Synergist’s May 2022 cover article, “Harnessing the Hidden Power of Empathy: Effective Leadership and Greater Compassion for OEHS Professionals” or in consultant Daniel Goleman’s newsletter, linked in the Resources section.
Social awareness skills provide OEHS professionals with the curiosity they may need to define an organization’s structure type and key players. Some organizations are very good at explaining their structure during employee onboarding. In those that are not, OEHS professionals may need to do some probing for this information. For OEHS professionals who work as outside consultants, identifying an organization’s reporting structure is crucial to success with clients through ensuring that the consultant’s advice is targeted to the correct person or department for implementation. Determining the client’s organizational structure will involve working with the consultant’s point of contact. Finally, OEHS professionals who are employed by organizations undergoing mergers must recognize a shift in reporting structures as vital to program continuity. Awareness of the structural changes potentially resulting from a merger is a test of both social awareness and curiosity.
When starting work for a new employer or client, OEHS professionals might first develop a generalized risk management or OEHS policy. Then, they can assess the needs of working groups based on their organization’s structure. In some cases, this may mean deputizing a risk manager who can track OEHS challenges that will arise during product design and development, production, marketing, and distribution. Whether serving as an internal or external consultant, OEHS professionals should bring together all components of the organization. Understanding the structure and culture of the organization will assist them with developing strategies for risk management that are tailored to the way that things get done.
CELIA A. BOOTH, CIH, CSP, ARM, is the past chair of AIHA’s Leadership and Management Committee as well as the principal of CAB Enterprises LLC.

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Emotional Intelligence (by Daniel Goleman): “The Four Domains of Emotional Intelligence” (May 17, 2022).
Four Week MBA: “The Complete Guide to Organizational Structure in 2022” (May 22, 2022).