Our industry’s culture has changed considerably over the last 30 years. In the past, workers were trained to do as they were told by their supervisors – the command-and-control form of management – which kept some workers quiet even when they spotted potential hazards during the course of work. Fortunately, we have evolved over time and continue to improve our understanding of leadership and what it takes to work safely.
But as far as we have progressed, there is still much room for improvement when it comes to stop work authority (SWA). Although many workers are empowered to and do use SWA, others opt not to for a whole host of reasons, including productivity concerns and peer pressure not to stop work. Often, we hear about situations in which seasoned, experienced electrical workers ignored or downplayed another worker’s request to stop after that worker spoke up about an imminent danger. Sometimes those situations ended up being near misses, during which nothing bad happened but could have. Other times, a serious injury or fatality occurred. It is disturbing to hear of serious injuries that could have been avoided simply by listening to another person who recognized a hazard.
Whatever the reasons are that your workers may not be using SWA, they need to be identified and addressed in order to prevent serious injuries and fatalities in the future. Improvement in this area must begin at the top of the organization with executive management. Both the spoken and unspoken messages that come from those executives should communicate the same thing: that any work done by the company shall be performed in a safe and productive manner. Workers must understand they always have the authority to stop work if they perceive a problem, and leaders must support them at every turn, particularly when employees make the choice to stop work.
Training is Critical
Training is critical to the success of an organization’s SWA program. SWA training should be conducted as part of the onboarding process for new employees and contractors. A review of the SWA program also should be a part of every job briefing conducted in the field. A great number of companies issue wallet cards to support SWA and provide employees with reinforcement for their responsibility. If your organization issues wallet cards, be sure that each worker is trained on the use of the card and the authority they have. This training cannot merely be a check-the-box completion of new employee orientation or any other method that only briefly communicates SWA. It must be effectively communicated to the worker that the SWA program is about personal safety and preventing injury.
Training also should include role-playing to engage workers in the SWA process; the process consists of stopping the work, informing others why you have stopped the work, correcting the imminent danger and then resuming work once it is safe to do so.
As noted earlier, improving a company’s SWA program must start with executive management. However, it’s important to recognize that every level of management is responsible for helping to create a culture that emphasizes the importance of SWA and holding accountable those individuals who choose not to comply with SWA procedures. In fact, it is frontline leaders who have the most influence to develop and sustain a culture in which SWA is utilized. Those leaders have a responsibility to communicate why and how to use SWA because they are in the field with workers every day. That responsibility begins with facilitating a job briefing before work begins and continues throughout the shift. Workers must have frontline leadership support that reinforces their obligation to step forward when they sense imminent danger. Employers have the obligation to investigate all SWA events and ensure proper corrective actions are taken.
Years ago, business management guru Peter Drucker coined the phrase, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” We manage risk in our industry by using our training and knowledge and by complying with safe work rules and procedures. To help ensure the safety of our job sites, each of us must recognize that we have a responsibility to stop work when we recognize imminent danger. When we understand the purpose of effectively using SWA, and there is support for it at every level of an organization, the organization’s culture will not devour this strategy that aims to prevent injury.
About the Author: Richard J. Horan Jr., CSP, CUSP, is a safety director for Blue Bell, Pennsylvania-based H&M Shared Services Inc., a Henkels & McCoy Group company.
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