Stop Work Authority – On Improving the Last Barrier in Organisations’ Risk Management

The Stop Work Authority or the Stop Work Policy within organisations give personnel or other people present at the location/site – subcontractors, or visitors – the right to stop the work in case of alleged hazards. Such policies are often present within organisations that operate in high-risk environments. 

Such a Work Policy is to be considered important, as it is one of the last barriers – if not the last – in the risk management framework. Such a seemingly small measure can have tremendous impact in preventing accidents. Companies working in high-risk environments most often have an extensive risk management framework in which all projects and activities are assessed, and mitigating measures are defined and implemented in order to ensure safe and sound activities. 

As a last measure there is Stop Work – the policy that allows all present in the vicinity of such activity to stop the activity in case of any alleged hazard. With all, all people is meant; Employer, contractor, supplier, visitors; all on site. The idea is that if, despite all careful preparations, an unsafe situation should occur, the knowledge and expertise of those present is built upon to stop the unsafe situation, correct it and then resume work.

A last barrier, which seems small, but can therefore have a major impact. Precisely because it relies on people for their knowledge and skills in situations that are not anticipated for- and therefore prepared for.

Aspects of influence on effectiveness of stop work

However, despite this major impact the stop work policy may have, there are various influences that hamper the effectiveness of this procedure. Organisations do have their procedures on paper on what is being expected with regards to unsafe situations, and how people should act upon those. However, within these procedures and prescribed steps, assumptions are made on the working environment and the people working in it. The procedures state the ‘work-as-imagined’, or ‘work-as-planned’[1]. Most often, the daily work, or the ‘work-as-done’, does not fully parallel the situations or steps as being described in the procedures. There are a number of aspects that influence the effectiveness of the stop work policy, and if attention is paid to those, the effectiveness can be increased many times over.

Many companies start the associated procedures when the work is actually stopped; the activity or situation that has been shut down must be analyzed, mitigating measures must be taken and reports must be made; all before the work is restarted. However, what is not taken into account is the process and mental steps and considerations people go through that will eventually lead to stop the work or to pursue the work.  

It is important to be aware of which thresholds (possibly) have to be overcome before actually speaking out and stopping work. Think of e.g. bystander effect & diffusion of responsibility, group thinking, influence of hierarchy, differing safety values / attitudes, and psychological safety.

  • The bystander effect is the alleged effect that the more people are present the less likely to act as ‘someone else will do it’. Diffusion of responsibility might come into play and individuals are deciding whether it is their responsibility to step in, or that someone else should. A difference should be noted that if a person feels that others are not able to step in – due to a knowledge gap for example -, the diffusion of responsibility is not felt as such. So, with many people present on a certain site, people may start questioning whether they should speak up if there is many others present that also might speak up.
  • People in a group tend to live up to the conformity of the group. Individual thinking is subverted to stay within the ‘group boundaries’, and people will therefore be hesitant to speak up if their ideas are outside set group frames. If all people in the group are not stopping the work, and therefore seemingly approve continuing the work, speaking up to stop the work would cross the conformity, and people will stick to the group norms; group think
  • During the execution of work, various people are present. This may vary from different people from varying hierarchical levels within one organisation, as well as subcontractors and suppliers. People depending on others higher in hierarchy may choose not to speak up, being afraid for their contract / position. The influence of hierarchy may therefore influence safety. 
  • People will not speak up or stop the work if they do not sense the urgency to do so. Safety values or attitude might differ within the group. 
  • In order for people to speak up, they must be able to speak up without being afraid for negative consequences regarding self-image, status or job. It means that psychological safe workplace should be present. 

These aspects, amongst others, should be addressed within the working environment to ensure the effectiveness of a procedure of stop work. 

Stopping the work? Or intervening? 

Looking at the goal of stop work – preventing accidents by enabling people to stop the work in allegedly unsafe situations – the policy should be stretched. The Stop Work policy is mostly focused on the actual stopping of work, whereas it is not always necessary to stop the work to ensure that unsafe activities will turn into safe activities. People can already act on a foreseen situation. A different type of intervention – instead of directly stopping – is therefore sufficient to make adjustments. Also, in view of mentioned thresholds to stop the work, asking a question or making a suggestion with regard to the said activity is often sufficient to make adjustments towards a safe situation. Provided that all present know how to read and act upon such suggestions. Lowering thresholds will result in easier use of the policy.

Takeaways for your own organization

So, what can you do to make your own stop work policy more effective? 

  • First, check what your policy looks like, as well as the associated procedures. How much is this work-as-imagined?
  • Determine whether in (the implementation of) your procedures the various psychological aspects are sufficiently taken into account. Take into account the perceptions of people, and not only the steps they are to be taking in case of (allegedly) hazardous situations. 
  • Did you reserve room for other interventions than stopping the work? Provide room for people to express their doubts. 

As we consider Stop Work to be rather important, we have teamed up with Raccoon Serious Games to start developing a serious game to start creating more awareness amongst operational personnel for using the Stop Work policy. Would you like to know more? Let me know, or visit www.StopWork.nl. 

[1]Read more on work-as-imagined and work-as-done in e.g. in Hollnagel, E., 2012. Resilience engineering and the systemic view of safety at work: Why work-as-done is not the same as work-as-imagined. In: Proceedings of the 58. Kongress der Gesellschaft für Arbeitswissenschaft, Dortmund, Germany. pp. 19–24.