Stop Work Authority: A Principled-Based Approach

Stop Work Authority: A Principled-Based Approach

How do you manage the decision-making of large groups of employees working in risky environments, and can you give away the necessary rights to those closest to work to make critical choices in how they work?

Starting my safety career almost 30 years ago, an early hurdle I had to jump was the acute realization that I could not be everywhere all the time, nor could I police the work environment close enough to ensure that everyone went home as healthy as they came in. Adding to this dilemma was the fact that I led large plants with expansive manufacturing geographies and had people scattered everywhere, getting direction from supervisory staffs that, at times, had differing objectives than me.

This raises the question: How do you manage the decision-making of large groups of employees working in risky environments, and can you give away the necessary rights to those closest to work to make critical choices in how they work? Giving away the authority to act is a big subject that is too much to cover in one article, but it’s a fundamental element in leveraging a work culture most EHSQ professionals desire, the authority to stop work.

Federal Law

Under federal law in the United States and similar laws written in other countries, employers must provide employees with a safe and healthy workplace free of recognized hazards. Workers have the right to refuse to perform dangerous work and, if they do so, are protected against employer retaliation.

The law was supported by the courts on Feb. 26, 1980, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that defined—with great clarity—a worker’s right to refuse work when there was a reasonable concern that death or serious injury or illness might occur performing the job. This decision stemmed from a 1974 case against Whirlpool Corp. in which two workers refused to crawl out on a screen from which a co-worker had fallen to his death only nine days earlier.

The two workers in the Whirlpool case were ordered by management to go out on the screen 20 feet above the floor to retrieve small appliance parts that had fallen from a conveyor belt system above. The screen was in place to protect workers in the plant from falling parts. Claiming that the screen was unsafe to climb, both employees refused to carry out the task and were sent home for the day and denied pay.

It is supported by law: If an employee believes working conditions are unsafe or unhealthful, he or she has the right, the responsibility, and the authority to halt work activity without fear of retribution.

Understanding the Value of Stop Work Authority

Stopping an operation is better than risking a loss. Stop Work Authority (SWA) is best viewed as a safety policy or procedure that authorizes and empowers employees to stop an action or condition they consider to be unsafe. The goal behind such a plan is to encourage workers to speak up without fear of retribution when they see a potential at-risk situation unfolding.

It is presumptuous to say that OSHA or any other regulatory agency requires SWA programs, but there is a mandate to the employer to provide a safe workplace and another that protects worker actions should the workplace not be safe. An SWA, however, goes farther to foster the idea of safety engagement.

OSHA concurs with this idea, stating that “the best safety and health programs involve every level of the organization, instilling a safety culture that reduces accidents for workers and improves the bottom line for managers” and concluding that “when safety and health are part of the organization and a way of life, everyone wins.” In this context, the very best safety programs have a broad partnership with employees on the manufacturing line.

A Principled Approach

It’s simple: The power of “we” thumps the power of “me” every time. Stop Work Authority supports this idea with the development of an environment and culture that encourage the belief that every person can create and maintain a workplace free of illness or injury or other loss. A worker who feels ownership of the safety process shifts from an independent worker to an interdependent business partner who shares decision rights to protect the work system.

Thinking back to my time with Kimberly-Clark Corp. and very early in my career, I was assigned to a newly constructed paper mill where I worked with a leadership staff that had a fervent desire to lead mostly by work principles rather than volumes of rules. While it would be inaccurate to think that I drove an entire safety program on principle, I did find that I liked the challenge of developing written regulatory mandated policies that were shaped in such a way that they guided the behaviors we desired as an organization. If there was no mandated requirement for a written procedure, we worked from our corporate principles and formed employee teams to craft procedures in a way that were short, concise, and served as foundational steppingstones for how the organization acted. I learned early that, if you could get the right input, gain alignment and endorsement, and monitor for success, you usually got the end result you desired.

Here are three work principles we adopted that support Stop Work Authority:

*Any person (employee, contractor, visitor) can and must confront unsafe behaviors and/or conditions. No one is authorized to disregard such a warning.
*No one is expected to perform any function or accept any direction that they believe is unsafe to themselves or others or creates an unsafe situation, regardless of who directs such an action (regardless of title or level of authority).
*Anyone who feels that a work situation is unsafe will shut down that process and work with appropriate team members to create a safe condition.

When you have a desire to build a strong culture that supports safety, everyone feels responsible for safety and pursues it daily. Employees go beyond the call of duty to identify unsafe conditions and behaviors and intervene to stop them. The positive yield is that there is just no activity so urgent or essential that the value for safety or health is compromised. Employees have the right and responsibility to refuse tasks or activities that pose an undue risk to themselves, co-workers, or the environment. Stop work actions take precedence over all other priorities and procedures.

Stop Work Authority Procedure and Incident Management

To support SWA policy, a procedure should be considered that outlines how you want such work to flow. Here is a common approach to consider:

1. Stop. When a worker identifies a perceived unsafe condition or behavioral action or sees a concern that poses a danger to a person(s), equipment, or the environment, a “stop work” intervention should be immediately initiated to “stop the work” with the person(s) potentially at risk.

2. Notify. Notify affected personnel and supervision of the stop work action. If necessary, stop all work activities that are associated with the work area in question. Make the area(s) as safe as possible by removing personnel and stabilizing the situation.

3. Investigate. Affected personnel will review and discuss the situation and come to an agreement on the stop work action. If all parties agree that the condition or act is safe to proceed without additional modifications, (e.g., the stop work initiator was unaware of specific information or circumstances), the SWA is complete at this point and no further steps are needed. When opinions differ regarding the validity of the stop work issue, the investigation group should be expanded with the proper experts. If it is determined and agreed the SWA is valid, a documented process such as a Stop Work Issuance Form should be considered to ensure all affected and authorized parties are aware and part of the correction steps.

4. Correct. The condition(s) or act(s) that posed a threat or imminent danger to a person(s), equipment, or the environment must be corrected before restarting work. Modifications and repairs to the affected area(s) will be made according to the corrections outlined in the Stop Work Issuance Form.

5. Resume. When the affected area(s) has been inspected by qualified persons and all safety issues have been appropriately resolved, the area(s) will be reopened for work by personnel with restart authority. All affected employees and contractors will be notified of what corrective actions were implemented and that work will recommence. 

6. Monitor. Measuring and evaluating the level of control that is achieved is an essential step in ensuring that the issue(s) is entirely abated. While it is the desired outcome of the stop work action to ensure the identified safety concerns are addressed to the satisfaction of all involved persons before the resumption of work, it is prudent to ensure the corrective action(s) was correct with follow-up inspections and interviews. Further investigation and corrective actions may be required to identify and address additional root causes discovered from such monitoring activity.

7. Communicate. An authorized person should publish the incident details regarding the stop work action to supervisory staff, managers, and employees outlining the issue, corrective action(s) taken, and lessons learned. Senior management will promptly review all stop work reports and may identify additional investigation or required follow-up to be done.


In a work environment that is bold enough to write safety principles that grant authority and the opportunity to shut down a manufacturing process, you also can imagine that mistakes will happen. To lessen such impacts, training is vitally important. Training should be performed to review the policy and program, teach how to identify hazards, teach how to recognize substandard behaviors, share the process for stopping the work when an issue is identified, and outline the notification process for affected personnel and management. There also should be a clear understanding of how the situation is investigated and corrected and returned to service via restart authority.

Resolving Conflict

For the process to work well and with the value intended, it should support final agreement from the person that initiated the stop work and the party that abated the issue. However, and without a doubt, opinions will differ at some point, and an agreement won’t be reached. Many times, I was called out to review a stop work situation and did not agree with it at all. Other times, I was asked to mediate between two parties who could not come to a successful conclusion.

In these situations, I would consider the second principle shared previously, “Anyone who feels that a work situation is unsafe will shut down that process and work with appropriate team members to create a safe situation.” Enlarge the group of those closest to the process and employees who have a vested interest in the safety of the operation, such as maintenance, engineering, supervisors, and manufacturing colleagues.

If it had ever come to a final vote, I would have been that vote, but it never came to that. We just worked the problem to a resolution. My recommendation is that this should be clearly defined in your SWA policy.

Using SWA as a Culture Lever

Can Stop Work Authority create a culture shift? I think it can.

Aside from the benefit of stopping work before a loss is experienced, there are two other significant outputs with such a plan. First, it promotes the idea of participation and partnership in the safety process, because it expands the safety and health team and adds many new eyes that are watching the safety process deep in the organization. Second, the policy gives the organization the opportunity to begin a path of putting aside a possible past culture where safety was not valued.

Regardless of culture, there is a good chance that there continue to be employees embedded in your current work system who cling to the perception that “production reigns” and that “safety is the job of the safety team.” A solid SWA plan helps in dismissing such thoughts.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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