We go into a lot of organizations and one of the things we hear frequently is that everyone at the organization is responsible for safety. By this they typically mean that each person should feel empowered to take actions to ensure that they or others are safe. One way that you see a lot of organizations making this philosophy actionable is that they institute a “stop work” program. The idea is that if an employee witnesses something unsafe they have authority to stop the job and take the steps necessary to make sure that the risks are sufficiently reduced.
Sounds like a great idea right?
One way to define the safety profession is to say that our job is to identify the unintended consequences of human and organizational actions. People typically don’t intend to hurt themselves or others, but their actions often result in them or others getting hurt. Why? The person or organization made a plan to do something (i.e. a job) but they didn’t identify and/or manage the risks that their plan would expose them to, i.e. the unintended consequence of their actions. So our job as safety professionals is to make people and/or organizations aware of the unintended consequences and eliminate or make acceptable the risks derived from those consequences.
Here’s the kicker – even actions designed to make us safe can have unintended consequences. That doesn’t mean these actions are bad, just that they, like everything else, need to be thought out to ensure that in the process of trying to make things better we don’t accidentally make things worse.
Take the “safety is everyone’s responsibility” philosophy, and specifically the policy that all employees have the ability to “stop work” if they see an unsafe condition. In psychology there’s a concept called “diffusion of responsibility.” The idea is that if a person is around other people he or she is less likely to take responsibility for an action. You see this in emergencies, where people in a crowd are less likely to call for emergency services than a single person who witnesses the emergency (“I’m sure one of these people will call for help”). You also see this in charity situations, where people are less likely to give to charities when in the presence of others. Basically, the individual in a group puts the responsibility for action on the group, and not on him- or herself, making individual action less likely.
Now apply that to “stop work” policies – if an employee walks through your job site and sees an unsafe condition but also sees others in the area, diffusion of responsibility predicts that they will be less likely than normal to take action. There are other psychological processes that could be involved as well but you can see what the conclusion is. We end up with a safety policy that looks great on paper but is meaningless in real life and may actually create a false sense of security for the organization and the employees.
Don’t get us wrong; we have seen “stop work” policies that are effective and we do advocate that organizations give employees stop work authority. However, if we ignore the unintended consequences we may end up doing little or no good at all at improving safety in our organizations. The key to implementing an effective “stop work” policy is that you need the following three components:
- Management commitment. You need managers and supervisors at every level fully on board with the process. If you try to implement the program but you have managers sending a different message to employees the program will fail.
- Training and communication. Just telling employees that they have this authority isn’t enough. You need to drive home to employees why it’s important that they, individually, take responsibility and take the appropriate actions. If possible give employees scenarios so they can visualize how they would respond to different situations. Remember, stopping work is easier said than done, so make sure employees have the tools they need to fully implement it.
- Follow through. For the first few months of implementing the policy (or reinvigorating the policy, as the case may be) you need to be extremely responsive to any time someone stops work. If they do, unless the employee did some egregious, you need to put them on a pedestal, even (especially) if they didn’t need to shut down the job because a later investigation found no unsafe condition. Do not allow any punishment for anyone who stops a job (again, unless they did something egregious) otherwise you will kill the program. Remember, you are attempting to make people act differently than they normally do. So you need to give them incentives to do so and remove any punishing elements.
Keep these three components in mind. Without the right foundation in place a “stop work” program, or any program based on the idea that safety is everyone’s responsibility, will not succeed.