Safety culture Injury prevention

Stop-work authority

Empowering workers to halt a dangerous situation can help prevent injuries, experts say

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Key points

  • All employees should receive training on stopping any work they view as unsafe.
  • The exercise of stop-work must be followed up with an investigation of the situation to determine if hazards exist and how to fix them.
  • Employers should support and thank employees who exercise SWA: One survey showed that many employees fear retaliation if they use it.

Additional resources

A new job can seem a bit overwhelming, and it’s common for a recent hire to feel uncomfortable. That discomfort may prevent the worker from speaking up about a potentially unsafe environment.

Experienced employees, on the other hand, may feel so comfortable on the job that they are willing to take certain risks – or may not even recognize that certain situations are dangerous – according to Eddie Greer, director of business development for the Champaign, IL-based Board of Certified Safety Professionals.

Regardless of workers’ experience level, Greer and other experts recommend that employers implement stop-work authority. SWA is a policy that empowers all workers to shut down operations if a hazardous condition exists.

“If we make stop-work authority part of the culture, and they did it every time there’s an issue, then a lot of the fatalities and injuries would go away,” Greer said.

Beyond legal rights

Under federal law, employers must provide employees with a safe and healthful workplace free of recognized hazards. Workers have the right to refuse to perform dangerous work and, if they do so, are protected against employer retaliation.

But as with many aspects of workplace safety, experts advise going beyond the letter of the law when it comes to SWA.

For example, although workers are allowed to refuse work assigned to them, they are not granted the same protections for stopping the work of others. Any effective SWA policy needs to allow employees to stop unsafe work regardless of who is performing it, according to Eric Bertolet, corporate safety manager for Baton Rouge, LA-based TOPCOR Companies.

“If you see it, you own it,” Bertolet said.

In addition, employers have to buy in and positively promote an SWA policy, Bertolet said. This is where some policies may fall flat.

The RAD Group, a Conroe, TX-based consulting firm, polled 2,600 workers representing a variety of industries in 14 countries and 10 languages. Nearly all of the surveyed workers affirmed that their workplace had an SWA policy. Despite this, more than 60 percent said they would not speak up or intervene if they saw something unsafe, according to Michael Allen, director of training and development for the RAD Group.

SWA policies in those workplaces failed to address deeper concerns, Allen said. Workers feared retribution or another form of punishment. Some worried that they would be ostracized or knew that if production slowed in their department, it would have to be sped up in another department to compensate. Other reasons for not stopping work may include peer pressure, a desire to get the job done or not wanting to contradict a supervisor, according to Bertolet.

The experts who spoke with Safety+Health agreed that these worker concerns are valid, and employers must be proactive in creating an environment that reinforces an employee’s right to stop unsafe work.

Relative risk

Stop-work authority can be tricky to implement because what one person considers unsafe or dangerous, another person may view as acceptable.

Referencing the organization’s safety rules can make things a bit more clear-cut, according to Eric Bertolet, corporate safety manager for Baton Rouge, LA-based TOPCOR Companies. The employer sets the rules based on OSHA regulations, voluntary consensus standards or in-house policies. If a worker is in violation of those rules, then the work should stop.

Comfort is another issue altogether, and a valid one to use to stop work, according to Bertolet. A worker may not feel comfortable working from height or in a confined space. In those situations, he or she may exercise SWA.

An employer investigating the situation may conclude that the workplace is safe, yet the employee may still feel uncomfortable due to his or her personal fears. In such a case, Bertolet suggests the employer relocate the worker to a more comfortable environment in which to perform tasks.

Implementation

Even if workers notice something being done unsafely, they may not say anything because of the “bystander effect.”

“They all assume someone else is going to take care of it,” Allen explained.

To encourage employees to stop work in dangerous situations, educate them about the employer’s SWA policy during new-hire orientation, Greer said. Afterward, foremen and upper management need to reinforce the policy and train workers on hazard recognition on a regular basis.

Employers also should train workers on how to intervene and stop a co-worker’s job if it is being done unsafely, Bertolet said, noting that this sends the message “I’m interceding because I care about your life and health.” Allen agreed, and said people must be taught how to intervene without creating defensiveness.

Bertolet said managers need to lead by example even at the expense of productivity, adding that employers should thank employees who exercise SWA.

A time to re-evaluate

If an employee halts work because of unsafe conditions, an employer can’t simply replace him or her with another worker willing to do the job, Bertolet said. Rather, the employer needs to evaluate the situation to find the root cause of the potential hazard.

“When we stop work, we’re not shutting the job down and going home,” Greer said. “We’re going to re-evaluate.”

In a stop-work situation, the job is temporarily shut down and everyone takes a step back to look at the process, Greer said. The worker who exercised SWA should be kept informed about the process, including the conclusions and any changes or additional training that will be implemented.

Human behavior must be taken into account. Even within a perfectly designed safety management system, incidents still can occur because of how workers choose to interact with the system. Unsafe behavior is a systematic issue that needs to be addressed, Allen said.

“Intervention should take place in such a way where you’re identifying why it makes sense to behave that way to begin with,” he said.

It is not a “blame game,” Allen stressed. Instead, it is about recognizing that an issue exists, identifying the context driving the issue and correcting it.

Whatever the investigation’s outcome, the worker who stopped the job should be supported. If the worker is singled out or teased, whether by a supervisor or co-worker, other employees will not speak up when they see future hazards, Greer warned.

The key to SWA is to make it part of continuous improvement. As Allen put it, the best organizations acknowledge that changes need to be made when things aren’t running perfectly.

However, SWA is not a cure-all, Bertolet stressed, and the goal should be to use it only when needed. If it is being used often, then a larger problem exists within the workplace culture. “Stop-work authority can be an inappropriate shift of responsibility,” Bertolet said. “We shouldn’t rely on employees to refuse unsafe work. We shouldn’t provide unsafe work.”

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