Contractor Safety: Building Trust and Communication

Oct. 1, 2007
The effective management of contractor safety not only is necessary for the protection of contract employees, but also for the protection of your employees and facility property. The best way to manage contractors is to communicate the scope of work before the job begins.

Contractors often are used for difficult and specialized tasks. These tasks may include replacing a precision piece of machinery or cleaning a process vessel for which the confined space occupants will need supplied air and level “C” protection along with a dedicated personnel and equipment decon facility. These tasks are hazardous because they are not performed on a routine basis and might involve potential exposure to chemicals or hazardous energy.

In many cases, multiple contractors work on the same facility, sometimes even the same project within the facility. This calls for special emphasis on the communication and coordination efforts for operations such as lockout/tagout, confined space entry and line breaking/blanking.

Setting safety performance expectations for contractors, selecting contractors, conducting documentation and hazard reviews and coordinating contractor orientation will facilitate a safe, efficient project.

Setting Expectations

Setting the expectations for contractors is very important. Contractors are only visiting the facility and will take the facility safety procedures as seriously as do the facility occupants. If the contractors see employees walking around without safety glasses, they will follow the trend and stop wearing safety glasses.

Likewise, contractors cannot follow safety procedures if they are not explained. If a hazardous work permit is required for certain operations – hot work, line breaking, confined space – then the contractor will need to know this in order to work safely.

A very important expectation is the scope of work the contactor must follow. This is where facility management and safety professionals specify which operations the contractor is expected to safely perform.

Hopefully, your facility already integrates safety into the contractor bid and acceptance procedures. Vague scope-of-work statements might describe the intent of the project but not inform contractors of the potential hazards.

A typical, vague, statement-of-work phrase might include, “The contractor will take direction and work on projects as specified by the operations manager.” This does not spell out the operations and hazards the contractor will encounter on a daily basis, or the expectation of facility management that the job be performed safely.

When such vague terminology is used, it is not unusual for the operations manager to specify an operation that the contractor is not qualified or trained for, or does not have the required personal protective equipment to safely perform the job. This means that either the contractor is unable to fulfill his obligations (something he is unlikely to want to admit) or he will skip safety considerations and do the best he can with what he has to complete the job. The result is that either the contractor or one of your employees could get hurt or the facility equipment could be damaged. That is why it is imperative to spell out the safety expectations, the operations to be performed and the hazards to be encountered in the scope of work.

If the contractor performs a pre-job walkthrough, make sure he gets copies of any permits (hot work, hazardous work, confined space, live electrical work) and additional documentation (scaffolding competent person inspections, excavation competent person inspections, flash/shock calculations and PPE requirements for live electrical work)he will be responsible for completing and submitting to facility management or the safety director for approval before and during the project. This also helps the contractor set the internal expectations for the team members who will be working at the facility.

One assumed expectation that usually is not stressed enough is that the facility project manager (PM) and the contractor’s supervisor are responsible for the safety of the project’s crew and facility personnel. This expectation must be stressed because employees will follow the manager or supervisor who controls their salaries, raises and bonuses. A safety professional cannot be everywhere at one time, so the facility PM must ensure the job is run safely.

Another common expectation maintains that facility management can dictate whether the project can be sub-contracted out to another contractor. If the facility has a policy that allows contractors to “sub-out” the work, then the sub-contractor should have to go through the same selection process as the prime contractor, to ensure the work will be completed safely and that the sub-contractor actually is qualified to perform the work.

The practice of substance abuse testing, along with a requirement for any pre-project substance tests, also should be communicated to contractors before projects start. I have heard of some facilities that require a “clean” substance abuse result within 1 week of starting the project. If this is a requirement for contractors at your facility, then substance abuse testing should be conducted before contract employees come on site. Also, you might want to suggest that additional contractor employees than initially are needed submit to substance abuse testing. There always will be a time on every job where a vacation or illness or injury prevents a contractor from working and the backup employee also will need to have a “clean” substance abuse result.

Contractor Selection and Documentation Review

How do you know a contractor can safely perform the operation outlined in the scope of work? One method is to have standard contractor selection criteria. Elements of the contractor selection criteria can include previous work history, accident/incident rates, OSHA citations (open and closed) for the past 5 years, current experience modification rate (EMR) and evaluation of their written safety programs, training records and equipment calibration records.

While this documentation is a good start, it does not tell the whole story. Check the OSHA Web site ( for citations or call your local, state or federal OSHA office for assistance. The EMR certification should come from the contractor’s workers’ compensation carrier.

The written safety program and training records should complement each other. While the contractor might have a good written respiratory protection program, actions speak louder than words. If the contractor’s employee shows up to work with his respirator and beard ready to cut into a chemically contaminated process line, the contractor’s written programs and training records – along with the contractor’s commitment to safety – are in question.

In this case, the contractor not only should have employees that follow the contractor’s safety program, but should be able to provide the respirator training records along with the employees’ fit tests.

Any safety equipment needed for operations such as confined space entry must be calibrated by the manufacturer’s recommendations. If a substance abuse test is required, then this documentation should be presented the first day of the project and filed with the other project documentation. In some cases, this information is kept with the security department. If they cannot provide written safety programs, training records and equipment calibration documentation, then the company might be a “paper tiger” -- it looks good on paper, but does not follow its own policies and procedures, and management is not committed to safely execute the job. Establish an interval for the contractor to resubmit documentation. Most companies require contractors to resubmit their documentation every 2 or 3 years. This also is a benefit to the contractor to get all the documentation completed correctly the first time.

Also, part of the documentation review is to review the hazards with the contractor prior to starting the work. This is the project manager’s role, but EHS professionals often are asked to assist the project manager in explaining the hazards. For example, some contractors will not lockout/tagout the power and require the facility to perform this operation. Likewise, the facility may assume that the contractor will perform the lockout/tagout. Communication and coordination between contractors and the facility is the key to a safe operation.

Chemical Safety

If the contractor uses chemicals, a hazardous chemical substitution should be researched. It is the contractor’s responsibility to prove to the facility that the chosen chemical is the only acceptable one to complete the job. A material safety data sheet (MSDS) approval process easily can be put in place to ensure not only that the safest chemicals are being used, but also that the most up-to-date MSDS is available for reference if an employee or contractor is exposed to this chemical.

It’s desirable to use the most environmentally friendly chemical, not only for environmental reasons, but also for the contractor who will use the chemical. The chemical substitution research could help reduce the contractor’s need for respiratory protection, chemical gloves and other personal protective equipment use.

Chemical approval also is necessary when mixing waste chemicals can cause a fire or chemical off-gassing, or cause the facility to operate outside of its permit (air, wastewater, etc.) issued by the state.

The facility also should cover the location of its MSDS for the contractor, in case the contractor is exposed to one of the facility’s chemicals. Make sure the contractor can access the MSDS, whether in electronic or printed form.

Hazardous chemicals contribute to the generation of hazardous waste. The contractor should be responsible for removing excess chemicals after the job is complete. If these chemicals are left at the facility and are deemed a hazardous waste or solid waste, the facility must dispose of them properly.

Hazardous waste and solid waste disposal is costly. A reduction in hazardous waste generation will help the bottom line and reduce the company’s environmental liability at the same time.

Contractor Orientation

Now that a contractor has been selected and the hazards reviewed, the next step is contractor safety orientation. Contractors send their employees to become oriented with the facility’s site-specific procedures, documentation requirements and emergency evacuation/headcount areas. This is an important step for the contractor’s employees, as they sometimes travel from site to site and must understand the rules and procedures of each site.

Contractors probably will ask about emergency alarms at the facility. Not all facilities have the same alarm scenarios, so lights and horns could have different meanings from facility to facility. Demonstrating the alarms will help contractor employees understand them. A small, hand-carried display can showcase the different lights and horns to explain the alarm settings to the contractors. While this may not always be an option, it really helps the contractors to see the alarms and hear the sounds. Is it a fire alarm bell from grammar school or is it a fire alarm device? Does it have a horn that sounds for a few seconds followed by an automated voice that will tell the building occupants what the alarm is and what to do next?

A small map of the evacuation headcount areas, along with facility sign in/sign out information, can help contractors understand the facility’s layout and ensure they go to the proper headcount area in case of an emergency.

These contractors travel to many sites and need to acclimate to your site. Include the contractors in any fire or chemical spill response drills. This indicates that you value their safety just as much as the regular facility personnel’s, and also tests the evacuation headcount and contractor sign in/sign out procedures.

The contractor orientation is the time to go over any facility permits (hot work, hazardous work, confined space) or additional documentation (scaffolding competent person inspections, excavation competent person inspections, flash/shock calculations and PPE requirements for live electrical work) the contractor is responsible for submitting prior to starting the work or during the project. Bring examples and help show the contractors the correct way to complete the forms. It will help you and the contractors if everyone understands the standards of performance.

Another area to cover is what to do if an accident occurs at the facility. The contractor should know who receives accident reports and the steps required to investigate the accident’s cause. While no one plans to have an accident, an SOP should be used so everyone will know what to do if an accident does occur. Some facilities require a substance abuse test within a specified time period after the accident. It is the contractor’s responsibility to ensure these tests are carried out.

This also is a good time to discuss solid and hazardous waste generation, and recycling SOPs. Too often, contractors leave an unknown chemical behind when the job is over, leaving facility personnel to figure out what the item is and how to dispose of it properly. Contractors always should take the remaining chemicals with them; they can even be used at future jobs. Solid waste should be reduced to a minimum, and maximum effort should be placed on recycling efforts. While recycling does not pay for itself, it helps reduce the project’s cost for the facility.

Communicate to the contractor what happens when his employee fails to follow the established facility SOPs. While the expectation is that the contractor will not disregard a safety SOP on purpose, the potential is still there. The contractor discipline procedures, including removing contractors from the facility or removing an entire contractor company from the job, should be discussed. While this option is seldom used, everyone should know the procedure.

Some facilities include a section on site security in the contractor orientation. This explains any rules regarding being escorted in certain areas or “hooking up” to any computer in order to receive information via the Internet. Protection of intellectual property is important to companies. The use of cameras and any recording devices also should be discussed at this point.

Contractor Auditing

Now that the expectations are spelled out, potential hazards have been discussed and the contractor orientation is complete, the final step is to audit the contractor’s safety performance. These audits can be random or announced, narrow in focus or more encompassing depending on the operation to be audited.

A narrow-focus audit might examine the contractor’s confined space entry program, while an encompassing audit examines all the operations the contractor is performing that day. The contractor’s previous safety performance and experience at the facility may determine the frequency and scope of the audits. Audits should increase if the contractor has an unacceptable safety performance record but must be used due to the technical and special needs of the project.

A contractor checklist can be used to help keep track of procedures and to assign action items if deficiencies are found. The checklist should be site-specific and list all the operations a contractor is expected to perform. An “N/A” block can be added to skip over the operations that are not applicable to that contractor. It is very important that audit teams are accompanied by the project manager and the supervisor for the contractors. This will ensure that any safety deficiencies are shown to personnel responsible for mitigating the hazards.

One of the easiest items to audit are the competent person checks for operations like excavations and scaffolding and operations that require a facility permit, such as confined space and hot work. For other operations requiring the use of an air-purifying respirator, simply check the contractor employees’ names to the training records provided by the contractor. Once again, all defiencies should go through the project manager and the contractor’s supervisor for immediate correction. A list of action items may be needed if many corrective actions must be performed. This will help track the item to make sure that the root cause is corrected if an interim action is needed before a permanent action is completed.

In conclusion, the facility has a lot of influence in effectively managing contractor safety. There is no magic formula to contractor safety. Careful contractor selection, a clear statement of work, identification of the hazards the contractor will encounter and audits of the contractor’s performance (either random or on a schedule) are the only answer.

Facilities should choose contractors on the basis of work experience and ability to complete the job in a safe fashion, not just based on the bid for the project. Often the lowest bid is lowest because operational and safety corners are cut.

David Ayers, CHMM, CSP, M.S., has been an EHS professional for 10 years. He is the senior safety engineer for National Semiconductor Maryland and holds an M.S. in safety management from West Virginia University and an M.S. in environmental management from the University of Maryland. National Semiconductor Maryland has been an OSHA VPP site since July 2005.

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