26 Jul Contractor Safety

The importance of the Quality of Interactions between Company Representatives and their Contractors

Contractor safety has been a hot topic for many years. This increased focus has resulted in legislation around the world clarifying safety obligations of companies and contractors and an increase in the number of companies offering contractor safety management support. Despite this, many companies are still struggling with the challenge of contractor safety performance plateauing, which invites exploration of the underlying issues.

While working with many companies in heavy industry, including the energy, utility, and mining sectors, we have observed that many of the traditional approaches to contractor safety management have real value. However, what separates exceptional contractor safety programs from those that are less successful is usually the quality of executing key elements, such as the efforts taken to qualify contractors and the safety management activities in the workplace where the work is being executed.

Qualifiying Contractors

Qualifying contractors makes intuitive sense. After all, it would be irresponsible to hire a contractor who has demonstrated they are incapable of working safely. Before hiring a contractor, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask:

  • Do the contractor’s employees have the appropriate training certifications?
  • Does the contractor have safety policies and a safety management plan?
  • Does the contractor have a safety record which is good enough?

While this high-level goal of qualifying contractors makes sense, the devil is typically in the details. For instance, if we consider the common expectation that a contracting company ought to have their own safety policies and safety manuals guiding operations, it’s hard to dispute the logic. However, a quick internet search will find companies that offer services to create safety manuals and programs within days for contractors who need to become ‘certified’ with potential employers or contractor safety database registries.

On one hand, it seems perfectly reasonable that experts would be prepared to offer advice to contractors about what to put in their safety management programs. It also makes sense to maintain the data in a registry. On the other hand, we think it’s worth asking how much value there is in a cut-and-paste document. Much like the prospect of a college student buying an essay online, it’s possible that contractors can make themselves look better than they really are by buying something they don’t live by. It’s also possible that there are still some companies where that’s ok, they think they can claim to have done their due diligence and that any fault in an incident will fall on the contractor.

At the end of the day, we all know that safety performance in any company, whether it be a large multi-national or a local contractor, is dependent on:

  • Having the appropriate safety systems and processes in place.
  • Leadership setting the right safety tone at the top.
  • Managers and supervisors setting appropriate expectations and following up with employees.
  • Having employees who are trained properly and able to safely complete the work.

If leadership within the contracting company push their people to take shortcuts or turn a blind eye to their own safety manual, problems will develop. We believe that having a good qualifying process is important. We also believe that qualifying a contractor should be more than a procurement specialist asking for a copy of the contractor’s safety management plans.

Qualifying contractors is best viewed as a nuanced process that does involve some review of documentation, such as safety manuals and safety records. Nevertheless, a degree of skepticism around documents is appropriate. Slick-looking documents don’t ‘prove’ anything. Enron’s Vision and Values Statement did not prevent the collapse of the company. Similarly, some contractors, particularly smaller ones, may be very safe operators who lack extravagant documentation.

Therefore, we suggest that document review should be backed up by meeting with principles in the contracting company to gauge leadership’s safety philosophy and practices. When structured appropriately, with well-crafted probing questions, this type of meeting can be illuminating. In every case, the findings during the qualifying process must be correlated with observations made during the time the contractor is working on the property.

two workers on-site We also believe that qualifying a contractor should be more than a procurement specialist asking for a copy of the contractor’s safety management plans.

At the Job Site

A crucial element of any contractor safety program involves the interactions between key safety and operational representatives from the hiring company with the contractor’s personnel at the job site, before, during and after the work is completed.

There are critical aspects to observe during these front-line interactions, including how the owner’s representatives set expectations before work is started, how they approach workplace visits, and how they hold the contractor accountable, regardless of whether findings point to good or poor safety practices.

This is another area where the underlying logic is hard to dispute. It makes sense for contractors to be told what the expectations are before work starts, and it makes sense for owner’s representatives or prime contractors to conduct site visits to monitor performance, intervening if safety practices are not being followed.

Despite the above logic, there are significant differences in practices between companies that excel with contractor safety and those that have challenges. Well-intentioned company safety representatives often make mistakes, such as trying to hold the contractor’s front-line employees accountable instead of the contracting company, and being satisfied with merely fixing a problem, rather than questioning why issues were allowed to develop in the first place. Company representatives also commonly ask themselves: “How do we know what the contractor is doing when we are not there?”

two workers on-site We all too often hear about serious incidents involving contractors where the investigation reveals that the root cause was known, but the people who knew were reluctant to speak up or intervene.

It can be challenging for company representatives to work with contractors on a work-site, but there are skills required in their interactions required to create a sustainable, safe workplace. The best company representatives create a condition in which safe work practices become habits. However, success in this area requires a nuanced understanding of what it takes. Consider a situation where a company representative discovers an unsafe or substandard condition on the job site. Should they:

  • Clarify expectations?
  • Provide some coaching to the contractors? The employees? The contractor’s supervisor?
  • Document their findings?
  • Shut down the job?
  • Remove the contractor from the site?

The correct answer is, “It depends”. The best response depends on what has happened, what was said in the past, the current situation, and the implications for the future. Unfortunately, many people find that answer unsatisfying and would rather default to a more defined and less nuanced response.

Many of the more rigid approaches to contractor safety management focus on consequences for failure. We would also acknowledge that having clear consequences for flagrant violations of safety practices makes perfect sense. However, if contractors become reluctant to ask questions, raise concerns, or report near-misses out of concerns over the consequences, safety challenges are driven underground. We all too often hear about serious incidents involving contractors where the investigation reveals that the root cause was known, but the people who knew were reluctant to speak up or intervene. The challenge is achieving a balance where all parties know the consequences for negligence, but at the same time, well-intentioned and diligent companies and contractors are able to work collaboratively on safety.

Achieving Success in Contractor Safety

Contractor safety management is best thought of as a multi-phase process, which considers both the characteristics of the contracting company as a qualifying condition, as well as the performance at the work site.

We recommend that the contractor qualification process needs to look beyond the initial impression created by documentation, and it ought to be scalable. Qualifying a large Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) Contractor should be a different undertaking than qualifying a sole proprietor brought in to do a small ‘handyman’ job. Similarly, the due diligence process should consider and reflect different risk levels and the degree to which the contractors can expose themselves and others to safety and reputational risk.

At the job site, we recommend that serious consideration be given to the nature of the interactions between company and contractor representatives. With contractor safety, this is where the rubber hits the road. Best practice at the job site goes beyond just writing-up contractors for failure to follow rules or terminating contractors who have experienced an incident. Best practice recognizes that contractors are part of a different company and they can’t be managed the same way as your own employees. The idea is to prevent incidents before they occur, as opposed to reacting after the fact. To do that, best practice involves building safe work habits that persist even when the company representatives are not on site.

Over the last few decades, there has been significant shifts in thinking about contractor safety. A few years ago, there was more discussion about whether the use of contractors was a viable means to shift the responsibility for safety from the hiring companies onto their contractors. However, for the most part those questions have been answered. These days, most companies are legitimately concerned with how to achieve true safety performance while using contractors, whether that is the safety of the contractor’s employees or how the actions of the contractors may impact others. Now the challenge is that the discussion topics are not as black and white. There is no silver bullet that guarantees contractor safety performance. There is no single process, contract, document, plan or consequence that will guarantee contractor safety performance or protect a company against serious incidents or reputational damage.

Success with contractor safety requires approaching the issue with a strong understanding of key principles around contractor safety performance management. It also requires a willingness to develop the skills of the employees in the hiring company who interact with contractors. That means that companies should be investing in the skill sets of those involved in qualifying contractors in a similar way to how companies invest resources in their own employee hiring processes.

Similarly, but more critically, the character of interactions between company representatives and their contractors at the job site ultimately determine safety performance. It’s a challenging issue that goes beyond just having safety rules. The good news is that the required skills can be trained and coached. The best company representatives have the time and skills to communicate expectations to contractors. They can create a culture of accountability while at the same time avoiding a punitive blame orientated environment which tend to push safety issues underground. They know how to look for the indications of good and not so good performance, and they know how to react in either case.

In companies with strong safety values and well-intentioned contractor safety management practices, the changes required to achieve an improvement in contractor safety performance are easily manageable. Adjusting something which already has positive elements to make it better is always easier than a radical change. With contractor safety practices that’s often the situation.