Stop! In the name of safety

Workers should be encouraged to halt a job when risks appear.
By Don Byrne June 10, 2019
Image courtesy: Bob Vavra, CFE Media

One of the primary goals of effective risk management is to cultivate an engaged workforce that is more aware of hazards in their daily jobs. With this heightened engagement and awareness should come a feeling of empowerment that any employee can stop work on an activity he or she believes to be high-risk and dangerous.

Surprisingly, though, even when workers do identify activities with a very high level of risk, few take initiative to stop the work. Why is this?

One of the main reasons frontline employees don’t utilize their empowerment to stop work is they aren’t aware of the gravity of the hazards they observe. Even if workers previously had noticed risky situations, many times they perceive a trade-off between resolving safety issues and keeping up production. This belief often stems from a deep-seated “production first” culture where a certain amount of risk mistakenly is considered part of the job. Even in facilities where leaders talk about the importance of stopping unsafe work, most employees don’t believe it applies to their job. Persistent production pressure only reinforces this belief.

Here’s another point to consider: employees often take it upon themselves to adapt to operations that don’t go exactly as planned. They are constantly compensating for equipment that is performing poorly or is out of service. They encounter raw materials that are deficient in some way. Their job, however, is to make it work, and that’s what they try to do. They often take pride in overcoming these obstacles. However, when they’re focused on problem-solving, they may not recognize new hazards they’ve introduced or understand the amount of risk they’re taking on.

And then there are the personal reasons employees have for not stopping work. Employees don’t want to be embarrassed. Taking a stand to stop work can be an isolating act that attracts unwanted negative attention. Workers also don’t want to be challenged or questioned by their teammates or by leadership. They want to feel supported and part of the team. Any actions that might cause them discomfort often will not be taken.

So how can employees overcome the barriers to stopping risky work? It is vital to create a culture that encourages risk awareness. Be aware that this is a process; such cultures aren’t created overnight. But some key elements in making this cultural shift can be undertaken immediately.

1. Train and coach workers to be aware of risk in their jobs.

Frontline employees know their jobs better than anyone else, so they should be involved actively in assessing risk every day. They should be trained to take the time to look for hazards and reflect on the severity of risk these hazards pose. Severity of risk can be calculated in terms of how often they are exposed and how bad the consequences would be if something went wrong. If they don’t make this calculation, workers may understand they are taking a risk but view it as a reasonable part of the job. When workers can quantify risk, though, they realize when it’s too high and will do something about it.

Along with doing the math, workers also should be encouraged to trust their gut. If an action or situation seems risky, they need to investigate further. Doing so will help them see how the risks are stacking up.

Workers who pause to think about risk and consult with their coworkers to reduce that risk are not only “risk aware” but “risk proactive.” This increased engagement with their jobs leads to a decrease in incidents.

2. Train and coach leaders to properly support stop work decisions.

When it comes to safety, stopping work is a critical area where leaders—including supervisors and team leaders, hourly and salaried—need to walk the talk.

Leaders should never question stopping the work. In fact, when employees stop work, they should be thanked and encouraged. This requires leaders to listen and understand risks from workers’ viewpoints. While there may be occasions when stopping work isn’t necessary, it’s a small price to pay to create a culture where the practice is an accepted, valuable tool that reduces risk.

3. Encourage pausing and reflecting.

Building workers’ confidence in knowing when to stop work is critical. Workers should be encouraged to pause and reflect for a moment before stopping the work in order to determine if they can reduce risks on their own or with coworkers. If they and their coworkers can’t reduce risks on their own, they must feel confident to stop the work and get the help they need. Rewarding and celebrating these events reinforces workers’ confidence in their own thought process.

Encouraging workers to pause and reflect increases their engagement with their job, allows them to build a rational case for stopping the work (or not), and helps them avoid the embarrassment of being wrong.

Workers should be empowered to take the initiative and stop work when they perceive a high-risk situation. By teaching employees to identify hazards and calculate risk, training leaders to respect and value employees’ decisions to stop work and building workers’ confidence to know when stopping the work is a must, risks can be reduced significantly across an organization.

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Don Byrne
Author Bio: Don Byrne is project manager with DuPont Sustainable Solutions.