Managing High Risk Contractors – Lessons from the Frontline

Managing High Risk Contractors

Setting the scene – baptism under fire!

Arrive in a foreign country as an operations manager with high severity incidents occurring in the same risk area. Had to “sort this out” and I had no clue how to. That’s when the reality hit, – that I had to quickly build my knowledge in managing high risk contractors and the importance of Health & Safety to keep people safe. Also, most importantly, stopping myself being sucked into a black hole where I was continually trying to manage incidents instead of preventing them. Through it all (until I got a handle on it) I was having the living life sucked out of me which was preventing me from doing my day job! Sound familiar, read on.

Breaking it Down

  • Good faith and honesty (the good buggers rule) = It all really does come down to “can we do business with this company”. It doesn’t come down to just dollars and cents, albeit these are important no doubt. Having the best interest of the workers and other stakeholders must always be uppermost and both parties must interact with honesty and in good faith. With these two elements magic things are possible. Being good buggers and having a shared vision gets results that would otherwise be unattainable. Good buggers rock.
  • Know the risks (know the stuff that can hurt your workers) = Understand what the risks involved in the work are and ensure the controls are effective, especially concerning critical risk. If you don’t understand the specifics of the risk area, get some resource in to help you understand. Google and talking to other people are also other great tools. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t have the knowledge in a specific risk area, smart people admit this and build knowledge quickly. What is Critical Risk and Why is it so Important? – Intesafety Workplace Safety
  • Standards (the minimum “must haves”) = Ensure you mandate the standards your contractors will comply with. You’d be surprised the number of variances in standards there are, even in industries that are highly regulated. Don’t leave standards to chance. Many companies will retain a critical risk standard or similar documents that explains in detail the expectations for achieving compliance in a critical risk area. These standards should not regurgitate codes of practice, anyone can do this. They must explain the minimum “must haves” to work safely and that should not take a lot to explain. I switch off at long documents and most other people do to. Keep it simple but relevant and you should be good. Generate safety clutter at your peril. What is Safety Clutter? – Intesafety Workplace Safety
  • Contracts (the verbiage) = Ensure you include comprehensive safety requirements in your contracts. Having wording that states “…… must comply with the HSWA 2015” is not enough. Ensuring that the contractors have also costed the safety costs into the project / scope is very important. Getting schedules wrong can directly impact safety, especially when timeframes are compressed. Shortcuts can be a direct result of poor front-end engineering and design (FEED) project/job planning and can directly lead to incidents. Getting the contract right from comprehensive planning sets the foundation for a safe project, 100%.
  • Contractor Pre-Qualification (can they work safe) = Make sure you know who are your high and low risk contractors. This would determine the effort you put into the front-end contract pre-qualification work. You cannot and should not prequal all contractors the same. We’ve seen a lot of contractors achieve 100% in pre-qualification systems yet don’t work safe when observed on site. Most of these pre-qualification systems are only ever paper based. It’s always good and preferable above all else to check previous clients. This is surprisingly left out in many pre-qual systems. The only method to effectively pre-qual a contractor is watch them work. Paper only pre-quals are of limited value. However, checking specialist training records (training & competency), insurances, past Worksafe prosecutions and a SSSP/Safe Work Method Statement to identify if the contractor understands the risks and controls on the job/project is a must. Small and sole trader companies can work safe but may not have all the systems you might like to support safe work. This does not mean you cannot engage them, however does mean you may have to spend more time educating them on a systematic approach to Health & Safety. Here’s the skinny, load the back-end monitoring and go light on the front-end pre-qual. Some would say it should be the other way around and more on this in another blog from our experience.
  • Relationships (people get shit done) = There will be times when relationships with high risk contractors will get things done when contracts and money get in the way. Developing relationships is time well spent and will pay dividends when you least expect it. Always deliberately cultivate relationships and prepare to reap the benefits. Developing a partnership rather than the normal hierarchal client / contractor relationship is the key. I have seen relationships win the day when all else failed. Fail to develop relationships at your peril.
  • Monitoring (boots on the ground) = you need to ensure you monitor the contractors work. Make sure this monitoring is layered, involves all stakeholders (including the workers who complete the work). If you are not monitoring the contractor safety, then how do you know they are working safely? Timing is everything and time this monitoring to ensure high risk tasks are being completed and during normal shift times, which may include night shift. Who inspects sites at night during a night shift?
  • Measuring (how effective are controls) = Always measure how effective the H&S application of your high-risk contractors controls are, especially concerning critical risk. Ensure you are looking at the good things (leading indicators) as well as the bad (lagging indicators). Ensure your metrics are appropriate to the risks. One good example of a risk specific metric for driving is measuring vehicle kilometres versus vehicle damage/accident/incidents, who does this when driving is a critical risk? Keeping a balanced view of contractor performance is key, don’t just focus on the bad stuff and acknowledge and reward the good stuff. A massive part of why safety is viewed so negatively is exactly because historically only the bad stuff was measured. Don’t do this. Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool.
  • Incidents (why does shit keep happening) = Are your contractors experiencing repeat hazards, near misses and incidents in the same critical risk area? If so, something isn’t right. Make sure good investigations are completed and causal and root cause factors are identified correctly. Lower their threshold for investigations to near misses so they have a chance to intervene in the incident chain. This is an area that we see a lot of gaps in many companies including high risk contractors. Rarely are people to blame for accidents, even when human error occurs. THE TOP 10 REASONS WHY SHIT HAPPENS – Intesafety Workplace Safety



Because we are not into safety clutter this is the end. However, in summary, manage your contractors or they may end up managing you. Make sure you understand and implement the success factors that lead to effectively managing high risk contractors. Understand the risks, measure and monitor them, develop solid relationships and it should be a breeze, maybe. Although it may seem easy, those in the know understand it takes a lot of work with consistent application to establish and maintain a robust contractor management system. And even when you think you have it nailed, you can still be caught out.

The secret is, there is no secret. It’s a lot of work managing high risk contractors and just make sure you load the right areas.

Good luck


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