The intent of a “stop work authority” (SWA) when included in a safety program is to empower employees to take action when they see a situation that is unsafe or think a worker may get injured. This is generally referred to as a progressive approach to ensuring that everyone becomes engaged in looking out for each other as well as a major step in improving worksite safety. This approach also benefits project supervision by having to spend less time on safety and more on “running the work.” To say nothing of the improvement in productivity, operational efficiency, reduced risk as well as profitability. This may be viewed as a “win-win” approach to managing risk and safety.                                                                               

Stop work implementation challenges

Though the SWA process and practice may seem as beneficial at many levels in dealing with operational risk and worker safety; there potentially may be some unforeseen barriers or challenges to its actual utilization. Some of these challenges may stem from:

Operational factors affecting the possible ignoring of the SWA may be caused by supervision’s emphasis on meeting a task completion target causing the crew to take risks in order to meet a production goal. The person may be influenced by peer pressure not to speak up, as such practice is accepted by the group. Also, one subcontractor’s employee may assume that they cannot stop another subcontractor’s worker even if they are at risk of injury.  

Worker perception may also play a role in the stopping the usage of the SWA in some situations. A worker may not want to alienate the other person by calling them out on their at-risk behavior. The perceived unsafe act may be performed by someone with more experience or who has been with the organization longer, thereby discouraging another’s intervention. The person seeing the at-risk behavior may not deem it as risky because they have worked in a similar manner without an adverse effect before.

The person observing the situation may feel that he or she does not have the authority to intervene in that particular situation. The unsafe act may be engaged in by a worker in a task about which the observer has little or no expertise. The observer may not perceive the situation as being hazardous or the action as unsafe. 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        

Diffusion of Responsibility is a psychological phenomenon wherein people are less inclined to take any form of action or feel a sense of responsibility to get involved due to the fact that others are present in or around the area. When people find themselves in groups of three or more, they may feel less responsibility to get involved because the others may have done so already. If the observer is uncertain of the situation, he or she may look around to see what others are doing. If no one takes any action, the person may assume that the situation probably may not warrant any action on his or her part either.

In an office situation, someone requiring information or assistance may send out a large number of emails with a request to many others. The thinking may be that someone from that large group is bound to respond, thereby ensuring resolution. It also saves time because if someone doesn't get what he or she needs by contacting only one person, they will have to contact another, and then even another until they get what they want, but much later. 

Social psychology research has shown that the response is inversely proportional to the number of people simultaneously contacted. The research has also indicated that there are more responses to e-mails addressed to single individuals, and the information tends to be more helpful as well. Diffusion of responsibility is often used to explain the bystander effect, a phenomenon in which the greater the number of people that are present, the less likely people are to help an individual in distress.                     

The bystander effect                                                                          

The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others hinders an individual from intervening in a situation that may cause injury or harm to others. The concept was publicized 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 as the reason why so many people did nothing.         

They conducted a number of experiments verifying that people in groups tend to respond to an emergency at a much slower rate, if at all, than if they are the only person present. They even found that the amount of time it takes a participant in an experiment to take action and/or seek help varies depending on how many other observers are in the room or general area. There are two major factors involved that contribute to the bystander effect. The first is the presence of other people, which leads to the diffusion of responsibility

The second reason is the need for people to behave in correct and socially acceptable ways. When the other people in the area fail to act, individuals often take this as a signal that any form of action or response is not required. This sort of thinking may even lead to the conclusion that any action taken may be inappropriate. Other researchers have found that onlookers will tend to be less likely to intervene if the situation is perceived to be unclear, open to interpretation, or enigmatic.

How does all this relate to the “stop work authority?” A key factor is the realization that another person may possibly be in harm's way. To actually intervene, one must believe that the person is not aware of the risk and must be stopped before he or she gets injured. Some of the reasons the observer fails to take action may be the fact that he or she does not deem the situation to be so hazardous that there is a high probability of harm or that the action will actually lead to harm. Stopping the work may have negative consequences on production, and the observer may not be sure that supervision may have a different interpretation of the situation after the fact and determine that stopping the work was an overreaction on the part of the observer.


To ensure that the SWA works more effectively, management must make sure that all workers fully understand what would constitute a situation which requires 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 also ensure that the work climate is fully supportive of the SWA and the workforce is comfortable and fully supportive of the policy.