A woodlands landscaper, 24 years old, muscular and fit from work, is roughhousing with a co-worker on a field during break time. His buddy shoulders him in the chest and he pushes back. Then he takes a step back, stands for a second or two, and collapses, his legs going limp. He falls flat on the field, motionless, his feet splayed out.

Co-workers run to him, seeing immediately that something is very wrong. One worker breaks through the huddle of men around him and begins administering CPR. Another goes to the truck and brings back a defibrillator. The man down is not breathing. His limp collapse suggests cardiac arrest. Co-workers are stunned. Some mill around aimlessly. Several cry. Several kneel and pray. CPR and the defibrillator get the 24-year-old’s heart beating again. Coworkers on the field team hold hands. Someone has called for an ambulance.

Finally, roughly sixteen minutes after he collapsed, the stricken worker is taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital. His condition is critical. His team of co-workers stand, kneel or walk around dazed. A team leader yells, “OK, take five, get some water, calm yourselves and we’ll get back to clearing this brush.” Later in an investigation he’ll deny saying this.

The team forms a huddle. Some take water. Some towel their faces. No one has picked up a tool. No one seems to be thinking about clearing brush. Some stare in the direction of the ambulance that raced off. None of the guys has ever seen something like this. Injuries, sure. Some bad, serious injuries. But defibrillator paddles on a likeable, strong young man who’s not breathing? The guys don’t know how to process the image.


Should we stay or should we go?

“Do we go on or stop?” asks one of the workers. “Stop for the day?” asks another. “We just got started.” “We just got here,” says a third. “Call the office,” says one. Someone on a cell calls in, explaining what happened. What should they do? “Hold on, we’ll get back to you,” says a manager.

The crew’s cell phones are buzzing the hospital, the only one in this remote area, where the man was taken. Specifics are few. He’s been admitted to the ER. He’s in critical condition. He had to be resuscitated again. That’s it. The crew waits for word from the office. And wait. And wait. Most are now sitting or lying on the grass. “What the hell,” mumbles one. “What, are the trying to see what the schedule is for tomorrow?” “Checking the weather?” “Trying to reach his family?” “Seeing if there will be any trouble with OSHA?”

An hour goes by. After 70 minutes the crew’s super gets a call on his cell. “Y’all come in. Stop work.”

What was going on in the office for 70 minutes? Stopping work seemed obvious. The workers were not mentally, emotionally ready to resume dangerous work with cutting tools and machinery. Preoccupied, distracted, distraught, someone could easily get hurt. “Man, they don’t get it. We had a cardiac arrest out here.” said one worker. “It’s stupid. More than an hour to stop work and the guy could be dying. If they really cared about our safety they would’ve stopped work for the day immediately. Immediately.”


Safety first. Really?

The National Football League, like many businesses, likes to boast about all it has done for worker safety. In front of millions of Monday Night Football viewers, that boast was as empty as the dubious phrase, Safety First. Safety didn’t come first that Monday night. It took NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell 70 minutes before officially stopping the game after a player suffered a cardiac arrest and almost died on the field. Players were stunned, weeping and praying. No one knew the victim’s condition. No one’s mind was on the game. So why so long to make the call? Money. One way or another it comes down to money. Could be advertising. Ratings. This was one of the biggest games of the year. Reviewing contracts. Rescheduling scenarios.

Money is behind the hollowness of many companies’ stop work policies. Sure, if you see something, say something. A change in weather conditions. An emergency situation. A near-miss incident. A lack of knowledge as to how to proceed. Unsafe conditions. Equipment used improperly. All legitimate risks. All often ignored by the workers who have the authority to halt work. Why? Back to money again. Production first. Production goals. Deadlines. Quotas. Slowing down or stopping is time lost. Time is money. You want to be the one to cost the company money? Maybe thousands. You want to be the one to have your judgment questioned? If you’re a new hire, a temp, an immigrant, even a veteran, are you going to speak up, especially when you see no one else is opening their mouth? The money in your pocket matters. No one wants to lose their job if the work stoppage proves unnecessary.


Reality check

Stop work authority sounds empowering. Sounds proactive. Sounds like safety is the first priority. How about a reality check? How many times has work actually been stopped by someone on the line? Ask workers anonymously if they truly will wield that authority. That they fear no repercussions. Many companies need to reinforce their stop work policies to a workforce fearful of being judged, blamed or fired for halting work. The messaging, the convincing must start at the top. Don’t hesitate and leave your workers wondering how important their safety is. We saw on a Monday night that doesn’t go down well.