Does your organization have a policy, system, procedure, or safety program element for Stop Work Authority (SWA)?

As a safety professional, this is a question you need to ask of your organization, of your clients, subcontractors, and supply chain.

Why? Because having SWA in place allows workers to actually manage safety in real time, including unsafe work situations or high risk dangerous work situations. No discussions. No waiting. Just taking immediate action when it's needed.

What Stop Work Authority Is and What It Does

If a competent, trained worker deems that a situation is unsafe or there is imminent danger, they have the obligation and responsibility to stop the work before an incident happens.

How? Because of a safety program element that empowers them to take this action. It goes by many names – Right to Refuse (RTR), an Internal Responsibility system element, or simply compliance with the general duty clauses of all North American OHS laws, acts, regulations, and standards – but we'll refer to it as Stop Work Authority (find out when workers have the right to refuse work).

As the name implies, Stop Work Authority gives the employees the right to put a stop to unsafe work, even when they normally don't have the authority to bring the work to a halt.

The Benefits of Stop Work Authority

Stop Work Authority does the following:

  1. It gives the worker the responsibility, obligation, and right to stop work they believe is or will create an imminent danger to themselves, others, or the public
  2. SWA provides a framework of procedural steps that take a systematic, documented, and immediate action to prevent loss
  3. The SWA procedure protects the individual exercising the Authority or Right from reprisal or other negative consequences for the action taken
  4. SWA truly supports the culture of safe work, internal responsibility, and front-line engagement in safe work practices
  5. SWA provides the company with empowered, competent workers who become the "safety eyes" for their own work and that of others
  6. SWA provides a framework for contractor and supply chain management in respect to safe work

What makes this procedure or right so critical to your organization? Having an SWA policy will help you with loss prevention. It will protect people, equipment, materials, and the environment. As a result, it can also increase profitability, heighten social impact, and improve the company's reputation (find out How to Look After Your Business' Safety Reputation).

Simply put, management, supervisors, and safety professionals and practitioners cannot be in every area of the job site at all times of the day. But who is there? Workers. And who knows the most about the hazards of the job? Workers. It's clear, then, that organizations must rely on the people doing the work as one of the cornerstones and foundation blocks of their corporate safety management system.

Having an SWA or Right to Refuse procedure is what enables workers to do their jobs safely.

Every employer, moreover, needs this in their safety system as part of their due diligence. Going to court and explaining why you don’t have it is a non-starter. Taking punitive action against an employee who appropriately applies their SWA or RTR in the United States or Canada guarantees a visit, if not an investigation followed by orders/fines, from regulators.

How to Create an Effective SWA Policy

Is simply having an SWA policy in place good enough? Not really. A policy is only as good as the entirety of its implementation, including procedure, documentation, training, and performance evaluation.

Here is a general example of the steps of a Stop Work Authority procedure:

  1. Stop the work
  2. Notify the supervisor or manager
  3. Investigate the stop work action
  4. Correct the situation
  5. Resume the work
  6. Follow up
  7. Document every step

Please remember to consider the following before actually implementing your SWA or RTR element:

  • A Due Diligence plan for correct and complete element implementation
  • An approved policy on SWA from the CEO
  • An approved procedure from HR, the safety department, or your policy group
  • Appropriate forms and documentation control processes, including review and revisions methods
  • A training package (included in new hire orientation) and all training plans that give your workers a clear, ongoing understanding of SWA and their responsibilities with regards to SWA
  • An evaluation process for the training (for example, an exam for training participants)
  • A communication system that makes the information about SWA/RTR and current applications of the procedure available to all levels of the organization and supply chain
  • Annual audit, review, and update
  • Soliciting input and consent from unions, worker associations, suppliers, and manufacturers

Worker Rights and Responsibilities

Above all, workers need to know they can actually use Stop Work Authority or exercise their Right to Refuse without fear of consequences. They must also understand that the work can be assigned to others and go forward while their SWA/RTR action is looked into.

They must also be informed that they have the right to go outside the company to regulators like OSHA and Canada Labour if they have concerns regarding the internal handling of the situation. However, make sure that your training carefully explains that any stop work or work refusal action must be made internally first and the employer must be given the opportunity to respond appropriately to correct the situation.

Employer Responsibilities

Employers must conduct an investigation of the SWA and take corrective action as required. Simply reassigning the work to another employee is not an option.

Investigate first. Include the worker(s), the members of the safety committee, and the safety practitioner or labor relations professional.

All of the steps of the SWA or RTR can be completed in short order, depending on the situation. Make sure you go through all the steps and document the whole process.

Motivate with Recognition, Not Fear

In researching this subject, I came across an interesting statistic. A very large percentage of workers in multiple studies indicated that they would not initiate an action even when observing unsafe or dangerous situations.

The reason? Fear. Fear of reprisal. Fear of being wrong. Fear of stepping forward. That fear can lead them to decide to wait for someone else to take action, something known as the bystander effect.

To reduce that percentage to zero, you have to visibly support – and yes, even recognize and reward – workers for their use of the procedure. It's not enough to have the policy in place; you need a great, living safety culture to achieve the results you want (find out How to Encourage Employees to Report Workplace Hazards).

Positive recognition and reward are powerful elements of a successful SWA or RTR implementation. So, when you're establishing a Stop Work Authority plan, be sure to build trust and lead from the front.