Safety culture

Stop-work authority

Empowering workers to halt unsafe situations

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Stop-work authority
Photo: kali9/iStockphoto

Stop-work authority permits any employee at any level to halt a job or task when a hazardous situation appears imminent. It isn’t mandatory, but safety professionals who spoke to Safety+Health insist on its use.

“Not only is it an employer’s legal responsibility to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards, an employer has an ethical responsibility as well,” said Michael Gentry, vice president of environmental health and safety at Cascade Environmental, an environmental investigation, drilling and remediation services and technologies firm based in Bothell, WA. “Worksite conditions can change, and having a program that requires and encourages employee involvement in hazard observation increases the chances that hazards are identified, mitigated or controlled toward the ultimate goal of zero incidents.”

Gentry said his company averages about 30 stop-work incidents a year. Employees who demonstrate effective use of the program can earn “Cascade Coins” and companywide recognition via email.

The kudos are more than a sign of appreciation – they’re incentives for others to use SWA.

“Periodic positive recognition of stop-work authority efforts ensures momentum remains at a consistently high level,” Gentry said.

Key elements

Employee recognition is a key component of an effective SWA policy, Gentry said. The others:

  • Empowering every employee in the SWA process, which increases the opportunities to identify and control risk.
  • Ensuring the workforce trusts leadership’s support of the program.
  • Clearly defining the expectations, positive outcomes and correct application, and then communicating that SWA is a required activity – to help ensure consistency in its application.
  • Frequently publishing effective SWA efforts as examples.

Psychology

Although calling a halt to work to avoid injury or damage to property might seem like a simple decision, certain social and psychological factors can make the decision fraught with anxiety, according to Peter G. Furst, organizational and human performance consultant for Furst Group and lecturer at the University of California, Berkley. Those factors include:
Diffusion of responsibility. A situation in which a person is less likely to take responsibility for action or inaction when others are present.
The bystander effect. A phenomenon in which people are less likely to offer help when others are present.
Pluralistic ignorance. A situation in which the majority of workers internally reject a norm, but incorrectly assume most others accept it, so they go along with it.

In a 2015 International Risk Management Institute article, Furst further detailed what can cause workers to hesitate when they see a potentially dangerous situation or circumstance:

  • The worker doesn’t consider a situation so hazardous that it presents a high likelihood of harm or an impending action that will lead to harm.
  • The worker may assume that he or she doesn’t have the authority to get involved.
  • If other workers in the area aren’t taking any action, the observer may not either, rationalizing that the situation doesn’t call for it.
  • The worker might assume that the others may know something that he or she doesn’t and so takes no action.
  • A worker might be afraid of alienating a co-worker by calling attention to an unsafe practice or situation.
Read the 2015 International Risk Management Institute article.

Experts say major obstacles to the use of SWA are peer pressure and fear of angering supervisors. SWA policies should address this. “We have a pretty comprehensive orientation for new hires, and it’s ingrained in them (that) if there’s ever any question, there’s no embarrassment, don’t feel bad, there’s zero tolerance for bullying,” said Bill Petersen, director of safety for Brieser Construction in Channahon, IL. “And even at this point, if they were to still feel that way, they can do this anonymously.

“For the most part, guys are pretty much of the mindset that no job is worth my life or an injury, so they’re going to make that stop,” Petersen added. “From the company’s standpoint, they would rather lose time, lose that money than have that injury and the workers’ comp claims and potential lawsuits, and things snowball from there. The company’s viewpoint is, ‘We’ll stop work any time of the week, any hour of the day to prevent that injury.’”

Communication

Clear communication of SWA policies is crucial.

Petersen said two of the most important aspects of an SWA policy are clarity of what constitutes a hazard worthy of stopping work and the assurance of no negative consequences for doing so – from the company or co-workers.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a two-person job or a 100-person job, if there’s something they’re not comfortable with, whether it’s (from) a safety standpoint or an understanding of the job in general, every employee – it’s covered in their basic orientation – has the right to stop work, contact the supervisor and (say), ‘Let’s figure this out,’” he said.

Although some reasons for stopping work may be obvious, such as someone working under a load being transported or the absence of proper personal protective equipment, others – such as a lack of confidence in a skill or confusion regarding the instructions for the task – may be less noticeable or felt only by one worker.

“Our message has always been that, ‘When in doubt, stop and review,’” Gentry said. “Additionally, clients that are unfamiliar with the large number of risk opportunities on drilling projects can become impatient with work stoppages and/or delays. We do our best to educate our clients before, during and after as to why we might have initiated an SWA.”

SWA policies should cover everyone on a jobsite – company employees, contractors, subcontractors and visitors. Processes of an SWA action vary, but the general framework is the stopping of the work, a discussion of the reason, notification of a supervisor, correction of the issue and resumption of the work.

“Many companies and employees may believe that it takes a lot of time to stop, notify, investigate and correct on each stop-work (case),” said Todd Forry, health and safety manager for Laramie, WY-based Trihydro Corp. – an engineering and environmental solutions company – and president of the Wyoming Oil & Gas Industry Safety Alliance. “However, depending on the circumstance, correcting the hazard can be an easy fix – picking up or moving a tripping hazard or coaching a co-worker on their unsafe activities.”

Jack Hinton is chief health, safety and environment officer at Baker Hughes, an oil and natural gas company based in Houston. Hinton said a 2017 integration of safety processes in the field resulted in a large uptick in SWA use. The attention to communication paid off.

“In just one year, our employees stopped work on customer well sites due to a process safety risk 50 times – an increase of 84 percent from the prior year,” he said. “The recognition of process safety risks and the courage shown by our frontline employees are key behaviors we encourage and expect, as these are critically important to avoid catastrophic incidents.”

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