SAFETY PERSPECTIVES

3 SafetyDNA Factors That Can Make or Break Your Stop Work Authority Program

Posted by  Esteban Tristan, Ph.D.

safetydna stop work authorityPlease answer the following question as honestly as possible.

On a scale of 1 (Very Unlikely) to 6 (Very Likely) what is the likelihood that the average employee in your workplace would stop a job if they deemed it to be unsafe?

Does your company have an official Stop Work Authority policy that allows any worker to stop a job if they feel it is unsafe?  If so, what was your answer to the question above?  If your rating was 3 or lower, don’t feel bad.  Many organizations today still struggle with implementing an effective and robust Stop Work Authority (SWA) process that truly empowers individuals to exercise this authority and stop a job when they feel that they or co-workers are at risk of injury.  I work with a lot of global organizations that have very low incident rates and seemingly strong safety cultures, but when we talk to employees about their SWA, it becomes apparent that not everyone is truly comfortable stopping the work.

Why is this?  Obviously one major reason is the constant pressure that many employees feel to maintain high productivity levels.  While we often say that safety is more important than production, in the real world people often have great intentions but production still wins out over safety.  This pressure is often a function of senior management or supervisors pushing production deadlines.  But oftentimes, SWA programs fail to launch because employees are skeptical that they can actually stop the work without experiencing some form of retribution from their supervisor or fellow co-workers.  Even when the company truly does want employees to speak up, long-lasting perceptions of fear often remain in the workforce, promoting a reluctance to use SWA.  Still, other factors, such as poor communication or instructions from management can slow down the SWA process.

All of the above can impact the success of your SWA process.  However, you may not have thought about the important role that psychological factors can play in implementing such a program.  Specifically, SafetyDNA® traits – individual safety-related characteristics that vary across the population – can strongly influence how each employee perceives and utilizes an SWA program.  Let’s take a look at three particular SafetyDNA traits that we should consider.

1. Control

Everyone has different, unique levels of the Control factor.  One key aspect of the Control factor is the extent to which you believe that you can control future events through your present actions.  This comes from the well-known trait in psychology known as Locus of Control.  People who are naturally higher in Control believe that they “make their own luck” in life whereas those who are lower on this factor believe that events in their life are mostly based on luck or circumstance; in other words, low Control individuals are more fatalistic. This is important for SWA because if an individual believes that they have very little control over what happens to them, they are unlikely to feel that they personally have the power to stop work on the job.  They see themselves as having little power to control or prevent things from occurring, so why would stopping an unsafe job be any different, especially if other organizational factors are signaling that they could experience negative outcomes for stopping production.

Coaching Tip:  For these individuals, it is important to take the extra time to explain to them that they are earnestly receiving the authority to stop the work and that their opinion matters.  Through clear communications and ongoing coaching, leaders will be able to persuade these individuals little by little that it really is OK to stop the job if something doesn’t look safe.

2. Rules

This second SafetyDNA factor relates to how rule-bound a person is.  Individuals who are naturally higher on this factor tend to like the structure of rules and therefore prefer to have rules and guidelines in place because ambiguity can frustrate them.  So safety rules just “make sense” to them and they usually have very little trouble adhering to them.  However, individuals who are lower on this factor tend to be much more flexible regarding rules and tend to see rules as mere guidelines that they can follow at their own discretion.  If a rule-bound employee sees a group of co-workers not following strict safety procedures during a task, they are more likely to feel the need to use SWA because of their strong need to follow rules.  Meanwhile, someone who is less rule-bound may feel comfortable with their co-workers bypassing procedures and is therefore less likely to object to the work being done.

Coaching Tip:  Many times, it can be very helpful to simply talk to those who are low on the Rules factor about facts and figures.  They often just need to know the "WHY" behind the rule and appreciate when someone takes the time to explain why a certain rule is in place.  Whether it’s previous injuries at your site or statistics from the industry that justify that safety rule, taking a logical, data-driven, and earnest approach with these individuals can help them understand why the rule is in place.  Once they understand the “why” behind the rule, and the associated risk of injury, they will be more likely to perceive that it is acceptable – and beneficial – to use SWA in a high risk situation, especially when clear cut rules are being violated such as a Life Saving or Cardinal Rule.

3. Caution

This third factor is essentially the level of discomfort you feel with risk-taking.  Those who are higher on Caution tend to see more risk than others in everyday activities and are uncomfortable taking any unnecessary risks.  In contrast, low Caution individuals tend to see very little risk in most activities and are more impulsive.  They like to make quicker decisions based on intuition, and don’t always consider the consequences of their actions.  In a safety context, this is important because a low Caution individual will simply not perceive much danger in the same situation that a high Caution individual would deem to be very high risk. As a result, a low Caution individual may approach an assigned task with an unacceptable level of risk (in the eyes of most others), but because of their natural high risk tolerance, they will likely proceed with the task rather than using the SWA process and stop the job.

Related: Tragedy Over South American Skies – A Case of Safety Risk Tolerance?

Coaching Tip:  Due to the fact that low Caution individuals naturally see less risk, it can be difficult for them to “adjust” their risk perception.  In their honest opinion, they really do feel there is very little risk even when many others would disagree.  One approach that can help these individuals is to calibrate their risk perception during group observations or audits of the work site conducted with other subject matter experts.  As you walk around the work site together, ask all parties to assess the level of risk associated with a few situations/tasks and then share your responses.  When different individuals observe the same situation at the same time and share their experiences and opinions, it can open the door for constructive and informative discussions that help change perceptions.  This can help those with low Caution to see the big picture and notice other risks they had not considered before.  Then, explain to them potential situations where SWA would be highly recommended, so that they can better understand the context as they see the work being done.

An SWA program that is well communicated and consistently implemented can have a tremendous and positive impact on employee safety.  The three psychological traits discussed here, which are highly associated with injuries and at-risk behaviors, can have a strong impact on whether a person uses your Stop Work Authority process in a high pressure moment.  By understanding these factors and adjusting your leadership and communication with employees based on their SafetyDNA profile, you can get the most out of your valuable SWA process.  Then it will truly and equally empower people to stop work whenever there is an unacceptable level of risk involved, which can be the difference between life and death.

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Esteban Tristan, Ph.D.

Esteban is the Director of Safety Solutions at Select International. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.

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