Stop Work Authority and the Bystander Effect

Implementing a stop-work authority program can help reduce the amount of workplace accidents.

The idea behind a stop-work authority (SWA) policy being incorporated into an organization’s safety program is for it to be beneficial for the workers, supervision and the organization. There is greater involvement and it gives them a sense of control—with more “eyes” on safety there will be fewer accidents. The supervisor will need to spend less time checking on worker’s behavior and can use the time for planning and problem solving. Of course, management also benefits from savings on their cost of risk, greater production, operational efficiency and increased profitability.

Once the SWA is incorporated into the safety program, workers are told of its many benefits and are encouraged to use it when they see situations that are unsafe, or when they see others engaged in unsafe behaviors. To ensure this outcome, supervisors are required to remind workers of this responsibility and the fact that they will be helping their coworkers avoid getting injured.

During the lunch break at a conference I was speaking at, I joined a table where a person was talking about his company’s implementation of a SWA practice. As a result, their accidents and losses had decreased dramatically. This may be true to some extent, 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 Reasons Why an Employee May Not Stop Work

  • That person may not perceive the situation or other worker’s actions as unsafe or hazardous.
  • There is a sense of urgency in getting the work done. The task may be expected to take minimal time and the worker may be experienced, causing the SWA to be ignored.

Perception of Risk

People who have taken risks and successfully completed tasks with no adverse outcomes may operate in that manner routinely over time. These factors may contribute to their behavior:

  • The person may not want to alienate their coworker by calling them out on it.
  • The person may be influenced by peer pressure to not speak up, as the others may have performed the work in that way and don’t see any good reason to do it differently.
  • The perceived unsafe act may be performed by someone with more experience or who has been with the organization longer, thereby discouraging the person from raising concern.
  • The person may be fearful of misinterpreting the situation and being ridiculed if they are somehow wrong in their assessment of the situation.
  • The person may not have a clear understanding of what the supervisors may deem as requiring intervention (stoppage).
  • Stopping work may impact production, which may be the supervisor's priority.

There is also the issue of the supervisor’s interpretation of the situation after the stoppage. He may determine that the risk was not serious enough to warrant a stoppage, leading to the subsequent loss of production. The impact of stoppages would be especially significant if the project or that task was behind schedule. This would cause the worker to rationalize ignoring the SWA.

There are researched underlying reasons for a worker’s hesitation to stop the work. This is best explained by the diffusion of responsibility or the bystander effect. Both of these phenomena have been well research in social psychology.

Diffusion of Responsibility

This is a psychological phenomenon that makes people less likely to take any form of action or feel a sense of responsibility to do something when there are other people present in or around the area. When people find themselves in large groups, they may feel less responsibility to take action because there are others who can 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 may not warrant any action on his or her part either.

A more common example may involve the need for information or assistance in an organization. This may cause emails to be sent to a number of people on the assumption that a few of them are sure to respond. This would save time because if it is sent to one person who does not respond, then more emails will have to be sent to others. Social psychology research has shown that the response is inversely proportional to the number of people simultaneously contacted. The findings have also shown that there are more responses to emails addressed to single individuals—the information tends to be more helpful as well. Diffusion of responsibility is often used to explain the bystander effect.

Bystander Effect

The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others hinders an individual from intervening in a situation that may cause harm to others. 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.


For SWA to work more effectively, management—especially the supervisors—must make sure that all workers fully understand what would constitute a situation that required 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 make sure the work climate is supportive of the SWA. During the SWA rollout, management should take an active role to ensure that the workforce is comfortable with the policy, address any issues, questions, or concerns and ensure everyone is fully on board and dedicated to taking action.

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