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3 Reasons Why Contractors Often Fail at Safety

January 25, 2017

work-injury.jpgA few years ago I was touring a coal mine in Australia as part of a project to help improve employee safety. We were just about to wrap up our tour when a small truck sped past us on the dirt road, leaving us in a large, billowing cloud of dust. I couldn’t help but comment to the Mine Superintendent, who was our tour guide, “Wow – seemed like he was going pretty fast, huh?” He immediately responded, “Yeah, that’s that (expletive) contractor again. The speed limit is 40 km per hour on this road! We’ve already talked to them twice about that.”

That was an all too common example of how companies often struggle to maintain high safety standards with their contractors and subcontractors. For whatever reason, employees from this particular contractor had repeatedly violated the mine site speed limit policy and were continuing to display this at-risk behavior.

Whether it’s mining, oil & gas, manufacturing, or any other industry, contractor safety continues to be a concern for organizations who are trying to maintain or improve their safety performance. I often hear stories such as this one, and wonder, “How could that happen?” or “Why do you let them do that?” And while oftentimes, it is that simple, there are also many instances where it’s a lot more complicated than that. In general, these types of situations seem to fall into one of three very broad and simple buckets.

1. They don’t know

You might have the expectation that a contractor working on-site for your company is aware of all basic safety policies and safe operating procedures. However, this is based on some important assumptions. Has your team identified and analyzed all of the hazards and risks? Has your prequalification process ensured that they possess all of the required certifications and hazard mitigation systems that are required to do your project safely? What about orientation - does your orientation process make it clear to contractor employees what the requirements and expectations are?

Failure at any one of these steps can lead to a situation where the contractor does not clearly know what is required to perform the job safely. If you do not know what the risks and controls are, they may not be adequately screened for during the prequalification process. And if you fail to identify weaknesses in the contractor company’s safety program, or fail to explain to them what your expectations and policies are on the job site, it could lead to a situation where the contractor company is truly unaware of what constitutes “working safely” at your job site.

2. They don’t care

I would like to think that most contracting companies these days truly care about safety and take the necessary steps to ensure that their employees have all the required training on safe work practices. However, there will likely always be some that simply don’t care. In my earlier example of the contract employee who continued speeding on the mine site despite previous warnings, it was evident that he knew the policy but probably did not care all that much about it.

Unfortunately, everyone differs to some extent on how much they value and commit to safety, regardless of how many trainings, safety meetings, or briefings they attend. Using contractors who assess their own employees using safety tests can help address this challenge, as well as examining the commitment and involvement of their leadership when it comes to safety.

3. They just can’t

My stepdad always had a saying, which was, “Don’t expect someone to give you a dime if all they’ve got is a nickel.” This was his way of telling me that sometimes you couldn’t count on certain people to come through on things that you expected from them. While this applies to many situations in life, I think it applies here as well.

Most contractors will confidently tell you that they can do the job safely, on time, and under budget, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are equipped to do so. They may have the best intentions and honestly believe they can do it based on past successes, but this may not apply to larger, more hazardous, or complex projects. Whether it’s training, manpower, or budget, there are always potential constraints for contractors (especially medium and small size organizations) that can limit their capability to get the job done while meeting your safety standards.

All three of the categories above can result in contractor safety issues for an organization. However, your company can avoid these situations by utilizing or developing a comprehensive contractor safety management system, using instruments to assess the risk propensity and safety awareness of their employees, and ensuring that they undergo an effective and thorough orientation program once they are on your job site. Together, these approaches can help ensure a successful partnership between you and your contractors when it comes to safety.

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Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. is the Director of Safety Solutions at PSI. 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.