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Stop Work Authority

As a project professional, have you ever seen something happening that was so unsafe you felt that you had to stop the work immediately? It could have been on the construction site or in the office. Did you feel you had the authority to stop the work without any consequences from your employer, coworkers, or manager? In the back of your mind, you may have contemplated that you could get in trouble for stopping the work and impacting progress. Maybe you felt that you didn’t know the safety procedure well enough to have the confidence to stop the work. You could have also thought that the person doing the unsafe act must know what they are doing. The person could have many years in the industry and seniority over you. The truth is that a company with a strong safety culture and safety values will always allow any employee to stop an unsafe act without fear or backlash. It’s a concern that companies may still be placing progress and the making of money over safety. In this culture, stopping work would be frowned upon and maybe even a career-limiting event. Would you even want to be associated with a company like this?

Even if a company embraces the stop work authority, there is a proper and improper way to stop the work. The method should be written out in company guidelines and communicated to all employees, visitors, and vendors. The project leadership team should be interested in the stop work authority and test it periodically to ensure it is working. I want to share two real examples that can serve as lessons and considerations for others.

Scenario 1: A 150-ton truck crane roamed the site and had to be pre-scheduled to conduct lifts in different areas of the project. It was important to keep the crane productive to make the scheduled lifts. Two employees were performing a periodic walk of the construction site. The employees witnessed a large piece of equipment that was about to be lifted onto a steel structure with the 150-ton crane. The nuts on the anchor bolts of the steel structure had not been torqued and there were many pieces of lateral bracing not installed. To the employees, it didn’t seem quite right to be lifting the equipment into place without the steel being 100% complete. The employees were unsure, so they pointed this out to the crane foreman at the location, then continued the job walk. They hadn’t formally stopped the work but flagged it and in turn “planted a seed of doubt” to the lifting crew. About 30 minutes later, the employees were called into the office of a very angry construction manager and asked why they had shut down a critical lift. If anything, the employees thought they would have been congratulated for the observation. The company ultimately called a structural engineer to inspect the steel with the recommendation being given to complete the steel to 100% before the equipment was lifted onto it. In this instance, it appeared progress was more important than safety even though it was a core value of the company.

Lessons Learned Scenario 1: If you are going to raise a safety concern, stay at the scene and see it through to completion. Don’t just highlight an issue and walk off. Develop a notification or call list when someone stops work and communicate the issue so that all interested parties are well informed. And finally, stick up for yourself if someone challenges your safety concerns or stop work authority.

Scenario 2: A large project was being executed as a joint venture between two construction companies. This meant that there was a mix of employees assigned to the project from the two companies. Each company had its respective safety procedures that varied significantly. Company # 1 felt that it was perfectly acceptable to work from a long extension ladder if three points of contact were maintained. Company #2 felt that it was totally unacceptable to ever work from a ladder ever. A safety representative from company #2 witnessed some of Company # 1`s employees working from a ladder and was infuriated at the action. The safety representative proceeded to yell at the employees and make a tremendous scene at the site. After the investigation, it was found that the safety representative acted so unprofessional that they were subsequently removed from the project.

Lessons Learned Scenario 2: Make sure all safety procedures are reviewed and accepted by all joint venture team members, vendors, and contractors. Calmly approach the situation and safely stop the work. Investigate and interrogate the employees before yelling and making a scene. Understand the root cause and make corrective action.

In closing, an employee stop-work authority is an important part of a great safety culture. The question that remains is if employees feel comfortable stopping work. From the two scenarios, there are grey areas that need to be addressed. Companies can do a better job at developing and publicizing a Stop Work authority guideline. Real examples of employees using their stop-work authority along with lessons learned can help other employees feel comfortable. If safety is a value and we want to lead by example, we should be rewarding and recognizing employees who voice concerns and use their stop-work authority the appropriate way. Calmly stopping an unsafe act could save a life.

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