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Construction Safety

Stop Work Authority and the Bystander Effect

Peter Furst | July 31, 2015

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A construction worker looking down from scaffolding

Stop work authority (SWA) in safety programs is intended to empower employees to intervene if and when they see situations that are unsafe or they see others engaged in unsafe behaviors. This is sometimes touted as a very progressive position taken by the organization to ensure the health and safety of their employees as well as the protection of the environment. This in theory is laudable but in practice may not be as effective as it is intended to be when implemented at construction companies.

I sat in as a guest in a group meeting of various safety managers from different construction organizations who were attributing the improvement of their companies' safety results to various policies, practices, or procedures in the management of safety, utilized by their organizations. One of these managers mentioned the SWA policy implemented by his company as a key reason for its improved safety statistics. A few of the other safety managers stated that their organization also had such a policy in place. After the meeting, I engaged the gentleman in a conversation and asked for an amplification of his statement regarding the company's SWA.

He said he previously had worked for an industrial manufacturing company where the workers had the authority to stop work in situations that they determined unsafe or to stop coworkers who were engaged in unsafe behaviors. When he joined the construction company about 10 years ago, he suggested a number of changes to be made to the safety program, of which the stop work policy was an important element. The message the company was sending its employees with the SWA was that safety was truly important and management fully supported it by giving them the authority to stop unsafe work. He could not recall any time that work had actually been stopped, but, over the years, workers had told him of their conversations with other workers about safety. Though he did not have any "hard" supporting data except anecdotal information, he was sure that the SWA set the "tone" at his company. Below are examples of stop work statements from various organizations.

Sample Stop Work Policy Statements

"Stop Work Authority (SWA) establishes the responsibility and authority of any individual to stop work when an unsafe condition or act could result in an undesirable event. In general terms, the SWA process involves a stop, notify, correct, and resume approach for resolving the situation or condition."

"It is the duty and right of everyone employed or engaged by XYZ Inc. to exercise the STOP WORK Policy (SWP) whenever an employee, the public, or the environment is at risk. Management fully supports the decision of its employees in the diligent execution of the SWP."

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

"The Stop Work Authority process involves a stop, notify, correct, and resume approach for the resolution of a perceived unsafe condition act, error, omission, or lack of understanding that could result in an undesirable event. All ABCD Company employees have the authority and obligation to stop any task, activity, or operation where concerns or questions regarding the control of health, safety, or the environmental risk exist."

The implication of SWA is that:

  • It is applicable to any situation involving unsafe conditions, actions, inactions, omissions, or mistakes that may cause harm.
  • Anyone can challenge another person on the work site on how the employee is going about doing his or her job, regardless of position, seniority, or discipline, if the employee determines that it creates a situation where there is the potential for injury to the person or others or that adversely impacts or causes harm to the environment.

An intended corollary to the SWA is that:

  • There will be no adverse effect (blame or punishment) levied on the person taking such action. It may even imply appreciation or recognition by management for it.
  • Action should be taken immediately upon the recognition of such a situation.

Stop work policies generally state that employees have the authority and obligation to stop any work activity where there is the potential for harm to people or the environment. There are assumed corollaries to the SWA that, by empowering employees, is supposed to get them more involved with safe practices. It is assumed that the SWA will foster greater engagement in safety and, as a result, raise awareness, encourage workers to look out for each other, and broaden the employees' focus from just their own tasks to what is going on around them. SWAs are not required by state or federal agencies; they require the organization to provide a hazard-free work site. But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does encourage organizations that seek entry into the Voluntary Protection Programs (VPPs), which recognize exemplary employers that do more than the minimum requirements for safety.

Stop Work Implementation Challenges

Theoretically, this is another line of defense at the "grass roots" level to assist in reducing the risk of injury or an adverse effect on the environment. It also involves workers in monitoring safety, and, as a result, they may take some ownership of it and so be more likely to contribute in a positive manner to the management of job site safety. But, there are many potential challenges to this practice. Some of these challenges may stem from:

  • Operational factors
  • Worker perception
  • Diffusion of responsibility
  • Bystander effect

Operational or Perceptual Reasons Why an Employee May Not Follow the Policy (Stop the Work)

  • That person may not perceive the situation as being hazardous or the action as unsafe. This is a case where the seriousness of risk is minimized since the observer has engaged in similar activities in similar ways. Or the level of the hazard is deemed to be below the actionable level.
  • That person may think that, given the situation and associated exposure, it does not warrant intervention. This is a case in which doing the work is important to achieving some goal. The task takes minimal time, so the exposure is limited, and the worker engaged in the activity is experienced. Given those factors, the stoppage may be ignored.

These two situations speak to the perception of risk, where that worker has engaged in some level of risk taking and accomplished the work without any adverse outcomes. Over time, the worker comes to believe that he or she can handle such risks, and, therefore, working in that manner becomes natural and accepted practice. Also see "pluralistic ignorance" below.

  • The person observing the situation may feel that he or she does not have the authority to intervene in that particular situation. The unsafe act may be engaged in by a worker in a task about which the observer has little or no expertise, or that worker may be working for another company.

This situation speaks to how clearly the SWA has been communicated to the workforce and whether the extent of the authority is unambiguously stated and distinctly understood.

  • That person may not want to alienate the other person by calling him/her on it.
  • The person may be influenced by peer pressure not to speak up, as the crew may have performed the work in a certain way and does not see any good reason to do it differently.
  • The potentially unsafe act may be performed by someone with more experience or who has been with the organization a longer period of time.
  • The person may be fearful of misinterpreting the situation and so being ridiculed if the person is somehow wrong in his or her assessment of the situation.

These situations speak to the person's relationship to others and how he or she feels about it. The person may want to be accepted by the others and therefore not want to alienate them. Being accepted by the group may affect the person's willingness to take what may seem like an adversarial position. The person may feel less knowledgeable than the other person and not want to take a mistaken position. All these situations speak to the way the person feels about his/her relationship with others.

  • The person may not have a clear understanding of what the supervisors will deem as requiring intervention to the level of stopping the work.
  • Stop work may impact production, which may be the supervisor's focus.

These two situations speak to the person's relationship with the supervisor. If the supervisor is primarily concerned with production or if the supervisor intimates that it is an overriding concern of the organization, the worker may be reluctant to stop work or may rationalize that the situation does not warrant it. Then there is the issue of how the supervisor will assess the situation after the fact and arrive at the conclusion that stopping the work was an overreaction and not really necessary.

There are underlying reasons for why a worker may not take any action on a construction site when the worker observes or becomes aware of a situation that may potentially injure those working in or around it. Or the worker may not want to get involved when observing a coworker engaged in an unsafe behavior that may pose a threat to his/her safety or even those working in the general vicinity. This is best explained in the diffusion of responsibility as well as the bystander effect. Both of these phenomenons have been well research in social psychology.

Diffusion of Responsibility

This is a psychological phenomenon in which people are less likely to take any form of action or feel a sense of responsibility to take action when there are others present in or around the area or have knowledge of or are aware of it. This is known as diffusion of responsibility. When people find themselves in large groups, they may feel less responsibility to take action because there are others who may do so. If the person is uncertain, he or she may look around to see what others are doing. If no one takes any action, the person assumes the situation probably may not warrant any action on his or her part either.

A large number of e-mails sent in organizations usually request some form of information or assistance. Such e-mails are usually sent to multiple recipients. The reason for this being that, the more people who are contacted, the more likely one is to get the needed information and possibly more or richer information at that. It also saves time because if someone doesn't get what he or she needs by contacting only one person, the person has to contact others later. Social psychology research has shown that the response is inversely proportional to the number of people simultaneously contacted. The research has also indicated that there are more responses to e-mails addressed to single individuals, and the information tends to be more helpful as well. Diffusion of responsibility is often used to explain the bystander effect, a phenomenon in which the greater the number of people that are present, the less likely people are to help an individual in distress.

Bystander Effect

The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others hinders an individual from intervening in a situation that may cause injury to others or the environment. This is a well-established phenomenon in social psychology. Social psychologists Darley and Latané popularized the concept following the infamous 1964 Kitty Genovese murder in Kew Gardens, New York. Kitty was stabbed to death outside her apartment, while people in her building and adjacent ones observed or were aware of the crime but did nothing to assist or call the police. Darley and Latané attributed the bystander effect to the diffusion of responsibility as the reason why so many people did nothing.

Darley and Latané conducted a number of experiments in the late 1960s to verify that people in groups tend to respond to an emergency at a much slower rate, if at all, than if they are the only person present. They even found that the amount of time it takes a participant in an experiment to take action and/or seek help varies depending on how many other observers are in the room or general area. In one experiment, they found that, while 70 percent would help a woman in distress when they were the only witness, only about 40 percent offered assistance when other people were also present. Other researchers have replicated similar results in a large number of experiments in the following years.

There are two major factors involved that contribute to the bystander effect. The first is the presence of other people, which leads to the diffusion of responsibility. This is because there are other observers, and so many individuals do not feel as much pressure or responsibility to take some form of action, since the responsibility to take action is thought to be shared among all of the people present. The thinking may also be that surely someone in the group has already done something and is awaiting assistance to arrive.

The second reason is the need for people to behave in correct and socially acceptable ways. When the other people in the area fail to act, individuals often take this as a signal that any form of action or response is not required. This sort of thinking may even lead to the conclusion that any action taken may be inappropriate. Other researchers have found that onlookers will tend to be less likely to intervene if the situation is perceived to be unclear, open to interpretation, or enigmatic.

How would this factor into SWA? One explanation may be "pluralistic ignorance." In social psychology, pluralistic ignorance is a situation in which a majority of group members privately rejects a norm, rule, or criterion but incorrectly assumes that most of the others accept it. As a result, they go along with it. This may also be described as "no one believes, but everyone thinks that everyone does in fact believe."

A key factor in people's decision to help another individual is the recognition that that person is actually in need of some form of assistance. To provide assistance, the bystander must realize that he or she is witnessing a possible or potentially emergency situation and that the victim is in need of help. As a result, one of the major reasons why eyewitnesses fail to intervene is that they do not even realize they are witnessing an emergency or even a crime. When we find ourselves in an ambiguous situation, and we are not sure whether there is an emergency or not, we often look to others to see how they are reacting. We assume that the others present may know something about the situation that we don't, so we gauge their reactions before we decide how we will respond. If those around us are acting as if it is an emergency, then we will treat it like an emergency as well. But if those around us are acting calm and unconcerned and take no action, then we may fail to recognize the criticality of the situation and as a result fail to intervene in the situation.

How does all this relate to the "stop work authority"? A key factor is the realization that another person may possibly be in harm's way. To actually intervene, one must believe that the person is not aware of the risk and must be stopped before he or she gets injured. Some of the reasons the observer fails to take action may be the fact that he or she does not deem the situation to be so hazardous that there is a high probability of harm or that the action will actually lead to harm. The observer may be unsure that the person is not aware of the potential harm and has not factored it into his or her actions. When there is any doubt, people look to others for guidance. And, if there are others in the area who are not taking any action, the observer will not either based on the assumption that there is no need for it. The observer may assume that the other bystanders may know something that he/she does not and so take no action. Stopping the work may have negative consequences on production, and the observer may not be sure that supervision may have a different interpretation of the situation after the fact and determine that stopping the work was an overreaction on the part of the observer.


So, for SWA to work more effectively, management must make sure that all workers fully understand what would constitute a situation that requires them to take action. Workers must also be reassured that there will be no negative consequences should they err on the side of safety. Management must also make sure that the work climate is supportive of the SWA. During the initial rollout of the SWA, management may take an active role to ensure that the workforce is comfortable with the policy, address any issues or questions, and deal with any concerns so that everyone is fully on board.

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