Stop Everything!

“It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times”
 ~Charles Dickens

Picture the biggest and most important job you’ve ever had going on. Thick with people and equipment; customers screaming for the product; the pressure to get this done coming down from on high. Might remind you of the last outage or the last time the line went down. Maybe in your world, that’s just a typical day. For many, it is.

On this day, you realize there’s a hazard. Not just any old hazard, but a hazard with serious potential consequences. Moreover, in your opinion, if something isn’t done, this hazard might just produce serious harm. Problem is, this isn’t the kind of hazard you can engineer your way around. It’s roughly the equivalent of a hurricane that might just show up where you work. 

Or not.

Given the situation, you have a choice. A simple choice: stop everything – or take your chances that the whole thing will just blow over. Which it may very well do.

I’m sure by now you have figured out this isn’t just some hypothetical example we’re making up for the purposes of examining some aspect of managing safety performance. This is the reality we’re all dealing with at this very moment: our world has been closed, cancelled, postponed, distanced, quarantined. 

In your life, have you seen a bigger job being stopped? 

If nothing else, there are fewer things to do, and more time to do them. Not like that will make you enjoy the moment. But this one’s not in your sphere of control or influence, so might as well put a bit of this free time to good use by learning a few lessons from the experience. 

Lessons about managing safety performance. 

Think This Isn’t A Decision?

The first and most obvious lesson involves decision making.  No getting around the fact that what we are experiencing was caused by a decision.  In the matter of COVID-19, you might think this is absolutely the right decision to make, the things being done are very appropriate given the circumstances. Alternatively, you might be of the opinion that this hazard does not warrant confining the entire nation to quarters.

What isn’t so obvious is this: allowing everything to go on, business as usual, would also represent a decision. Ignoring, delaying, waiting, evaluating, considering, but doing nothing: take your pick, they’re all a decision – not to take action. 

Either you take action, or you don’t. That’s the decision-maker’s choice. 

So, when things finally settle down, life gets back to some semblance of normal, and you’re back on the job, next time you see something going on that you don’t think is right, whether you say or do something, or don’t, either way you’re making a decision.

No sense pretending otherwise.

Think Stopping Will Be Pain Free?

No need recounting the pain this decision to stop everything is causing for we, the people. It seems no one has been spared, but some have been hit a lot harder than others.

If you’re getting your paycheck EFT’d to your bank account, consider yourself fortunate. For many, the rule is no work, no pay. That’s likely the case for your favorite server where you regularly dine on Friday night; it’s also the case for the owner of the restaurant who’s paying rent for an empty establishment. Recovering from that won’t be easy.

So, sometime in the future, when you’re grappling with the seemingly tough decision to shut something down in your operation for a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days, a little perspective can help. 

The pain of that decision is nothing compared to what we are now collectively experiencing.

Think Stopping The Job Is Easy?

There’s a saying that goes, “If you think something is easy, try doing it yourself.”  If you are of the opinion that stopping any job is easy, when you’re back on the job, go find one that needs stopping, give it a try, and see what happens.

I can assure you from personal experience stopping the job isn’t necessarily a good way to become more popular or make new friends. You may hear from your critics: that’s what critics do. For them, making tough decisions is somebody else’s job. You are not so fortunate.

Understanding that explains why, when it comes to stopping the job, a lot of people – good people – decide they’re better off taking their chances by not rocking the boat. We humans are social creatures, and want to be liked.

Speaking of not wanting to rock the boat, that is exactly what happened out on the Deepwater Horizon, on an April morning, a decade ago. It wasn’t like nobody knew what could happen: the Drilling Manager was reported to have told the Company Man that he’d better hope the blow out preventer would work the way it was supposed to.

The one thing he didn’t say was, “Stop the job.”

And Was It Worth It?

That is the question, isn’t it. Does the benefit of stopping everything justify what we are collectively going through?

Stop your job, and you’re facing the same question. Can you prove that something bad would have happened had you not said stop? If you reserve the exercise of stop work authority for situations where you can prove an event will happen, precious few jobs will ever be stopped.

This is all about managing uncertainty, and that is the essence of risk. 

When the dust finally settles on COVID-19, with a known US population of 370 million people and infection and fatality rates that will have been determined for the rest of the world, I guarantee researchers will give us the answer in terms of lives saved. 

But even if it’s only a handful of lives saved, if one of those happened to be one of your family members you’d think no matter what the pain, it was absolutely worth it. That is the Case for Safety. 

Back on your job, when it’s the safety of 37 people you know potentially in jeopardy, making that case is easy.

Thinking About Risk and Consequences?

We know COVID-19 is a hazard capable of causing fatal harm. So is lightning. In a year’s time, of the 25 million ground strikes, fifty people are struck and killed.  As bad as being struck is, not everyone suffers fatal harm. Statistically, the risk of being struck by lightning is very low. Perhaps because most of us know to get out of harm’s way when there’s a storm on top of us, and lightning does come with a very effective early warning system, known as thunder.

As to the risk presented by the hazard known as COVID-19, it’s very contagious. That’s just another way of saying the risk is very high. So is the flu. In 2018, 45 million of us came down with the flu. 2018 was a very bad year for the flu.

As to the severity of the consequences from coming down with the flu, the CDC estimated 80,000 lives were lost. Meaning that 44.9 million flu victims survived.

If you’re thinking about risk and the range of potential consequences, it doesn’t hurt to remind yourself of the health hazards with the highest risk (as measured by fatalities per year in these United States): 

  1. Heart Attack
  2. Lung Disease
  3. Influenza
  4. Drug overdose
  5. Motor Vehicle Accidents

Add them up: those five health hazards account for about a million fatalities a year. We’ll have to wait and see how COVID-19 compares, but save that list as it’s a good basis for comparison. Risk really is a relative thing. 


But the point of this missive is to better understand hazard and risk as it applies on your job. With some of this free time that you’ve been given, you would do well to apply this type of assessment of risk and consequences to the hazards found on your job. 

It’s possible that the hazards producing most of the consequences aren’t even on your radar screen.

They need to be.

Paul Balmert
March 2020

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