Stopping Unsafe Work Last Line of Defense

By Roy Maurer Feb 9, 2015
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Involving all employees in workplace safety and implementing a system of safety defenses to catch and stop unsafe actions has led to the growth of stop-work authority (SWA) programs. These programs place the responsibility on everyone at a jobsite to watch for safety risks and potential hazards. SWA programs are meant to protect all parties from negative repercussions for stopping work, prevent incidents and promote safety.

What Is Stop-Work Authority?

Stop-work authority programs provide workers with the responsibility and obligation to stop work when a perceived unsafe condition or behavior is recognized.

“Under SWA, every worker is empowered and expected to keep an eye out for potentially unsafe situations or processes and stop the job until the problem is corrected,” said Eric Bertolet, safety manager for TOPCOR Cos., a group of specialty and general contractors.

Stop-work authority programs are not required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) but are encouraged for entry into OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs, which recognize exemplary employers.

OSHA’s general duty clause requires that employers ensure hazard-free worksites, but it does not extend power to the employees to stop work. “When you believe working conditions are unsafe or unhealthful, you should call your employer’s attention to the problem. If your employer does not correct the hazard or disagrees with you about the extent of the hazard, you also may file a complaint with OSHA,” according to agency guidelines.

Company-run SWA programs empower employees to be proactive. “We expect that if workers see something unsafe, they will stop it, not ignore it and not accept it,” Bertolet said.

SWA must come with immunity from all negative repercussions, he said. “There’s hesitation to use SWA sometimes. It seems simple, seems like you wouldn’t have to have a program like that, that people would refuse to do unsafe work, but that is not always the case.”

Reasons given for not using SWA include being new to the job, being new to the crew, being intimidated and feeling peer pressure from colleagues who say “this is how we’ve always done it,” Bertolet said.

How Stop-Work Authority Works

First, workers need to be able to recognize unsafe work. “You’ve got to tell them what’s safe, what’s unsafe, what to tie off to, everything involving the work they’re doing. Don’t assume that they know what safe work is,” Bertolet said.

Examples of unsafe work an employee could put a stop to include violations of the company’s safety policies and procedures, violations of OSHA regulations, hazardous behaviors, tripped alarms, changed weather or road conditions, the operation of equipment without training, near-miss incidents, and emergency situations.

“Employees must be comfortable in refusing to undertake unsafe work. They must also be pushed to spot other people doing unsafe work,” Bertolet said. Every work refusal must be reported and investigated. “This is missing from a lot of programs. If we don’t learn from the incident, like with near-misses, we miss a great opportunity.”

The prevailing safety culture will determine whether stop-work authority is taken seriously, he added.

The Stop-Work Authority Process

SWA programs generally involve a six-step process, according to Bertolet:

Stop the unsafe work. Under SWA, employees are obligated to initiate a stop-work intervention with colleagues who are potentially at risk. “Just tell them, ‘I’m using stop-work authority to pause this job, and let’s talk about it,’ ” Bertolet said. The stop-work action should be clearly identified and initiated in a noncombative manner, he said: “Don’t panic, but come across in a helpful way.”

Notify affected personnel and supervision of the stop-work action. “Don’t take it upon yourself to correct it all. Get other people involved,” Bertolet said.

Investigate the cause for intervention. Affected personnel should discuss the situation and come to an agreement on the behavior or action in question. If all parties agree that it is safe to proceed without modifications, “the affected persons should show appreciation to the SWA initiator for their concern and then resume work,” Bertolet said. But if it’s determined that the SWA concern is valid, a stop-work issuance form will have to be completed. Work should be suspended until a proper resolution is achieved, Bertolet said.

Correct the hazard. Make modifications according to the corrections outlined in the stop-work issuance form, and have qualified experts verify that all safety issues have been properly resolved.

Resume work. A designated person restarts the work operation. All affected employees and contractors should be notified of what corrective actions were taken. “Educate people that this happened, that you’re using SWA and what the process is,” Bertolet said.

If the SWA initiator still believes the work is unsafe, he said, he or she “should be assigned to another job with absolutely no retribution. That will remove a lot of the hesitation around using SWA.”

Follow-up. Management is tasked with promptly reviewing all stop-work reports in order to identify any need for additional investigation or follow-up. The incident should be published and disseminated among the workforce along with corrective actions used and lessons learned, Bertolet said. “Managers will provide the root cause analysis to the stop-work action and identify any potential opportunities for improvement,” he noted. “Most of the time, these are not isolated incidents.”

Not a Magic Bullet

Rather than use SWA as a cornerstone of your safety program, it should be thought of as the last line of defense, Bertolet said. “It’s a useful tool but should be used sparingly. I think there’s a push to elevate it to do the job that [safety managers] should be doing,” he said.

Employers relying on SWA to prevent incidents, or seeing SWA used frequently, need to examine the underlying conditions causing workers to use it in the first place, Bertolet said.

“You’re being sold that this is the thing that will fix all your problems, but it’s not,” he noted. “If you’re having to use this all the time, you’ve got bigger safety problems to deal with.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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