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6th February 2020

Health & Safety – How competent are your contractors?

Contractors are used to carry out activities where the client does not have the necessary skills, experience or resources to do so themselves.

Failing to effectively manage contractors can and does lead to accidents affecting not only the contractors’ employees but also to the clients’ employees, visitors, etc. It is a dangerous misconception to assume that as the client, health and safety responsibilities have been transferred wholly to the contractor. Both parties are jointly responsible, and liable should something go wrong. There are numerous examples of where accidents have resulted in prosecution against the client and the contractor working on their behalf. In one such case a client and their contractor were prosecuted after one of the contractors’ operatives fell 9m to their death through a fragile panel in a warehouse roof whilst they were cleaning debris from it. The client failed to verify that the contractor had experience in this type of work or how the work would be undertaken. The contractor commenced working without any advance planning or preparation or the use of any safety equipment. As a result, the client was fined £200,000 for failing to ensure the safety of the contractor whilst the contractors’ owner was given a six-month prison sentence (suspended for 12 months) for failing to carry out the work in a safe manner.

Before work starts the client should clearly define the activity to be delivered, identify any hazards, assess the risks arising from these hazards and consider what measures will be required to control them. An important point to remember is that the client has a responsibility to inform contractors of any specific hazards they may encounter, such as asbestos or as in the case above fragile roofs. How well though does the client really understand the activity, the associated hazards and how these should be controlled? Surely this is why contractors are used in that it is expected that they will understand these things, they are expected to be competent, they’re the experts aren’t they?

How though can the client assure themselves that a contractor is indeed competent?

Selecting a contractor who meets the requirements of a recognised pre-qualification scheme under the Safety Schemes in Procurement (SSiP) arrangements is one method. However, this only proves that the contractor was able to demonstrate they had the right documentation (e.g. relevant health and safety policies and procedures and appropriate levels of insurance cover) to meet the requirements of passing a particular scheme. The client may decide, although much will depend on the scope and complexity of the activity, that in addition to using the previously described schemes as an initial ‘filter’ to use their own pre-qualification system which can be far more closely aligned to what it is they want the contractor to deliver on their behalf, for example providing evidence of similar work they have carried out in the past or of the competency of their operatives relevant to the activity.

In advance of the activity commencing the contractor should supply the client with specific risk assessment and method statements, ensuring that these consider not only the risks to their own operatives but any others who may be affected by their activities. Simply being supplied with risk assessments and method statements is not enough, the client must satisfy themselves that these are sufficient, is further clarification required? Did the contractor actually visit the site as part of their process for developing them? Where a contractor is perhaps unable or unwilling to supply a risk assessment and method statement (too busy, never been asked before etc.) in support of the work activity can the client take the chance on using them?

The client and contractor must agree ‘rules of engagement’ such as, any site rules or how accidents will be reported.

Once the activity commences the client should monitor the performance and conduct of the contractor to ensure safety precautions as previously agreed are actually being observed.

On completion of the activity the client should review how it was delivered, this will determine whether the contractor would be used again, or what further measures may be required when undertaking similar activities in the future.

While this may seem like a lot of effort, although as mentioned earlier how much effort required very much depends on the scope and complexity of the activity, given the potential for something going wrong and subsequent legal action can a client afford not to apply a sufficient degree of due diligence to ensuring that their contractors are competent and are working safely?

If you have any questions on any of the issues raised in the above article, please contact Gary Foggo.

6th February 2020