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Improving Subcontractor Safety

Safety 101: Improving Subcontractor Safety on Higher Education Construction Projects

By Dale Partridge, Director of Safety


What happens when there is a safety incident or accident on your site? After treating the injured, the cause is reviewed and the on-site safety director determines how it could have been prevented. Because hindsight is 20/20, it is important to shift the focus to preventing accidents by unsafe behavior well before a shovel hits the ground. “The industry has become even more sophisticated in managing contractors, but as long as humans are involved, errors will occur. […] So the key to effective contractor management is to never assume the problem is whipped” (Mavity, Practical Subcontractor Safety Management, Construction Executive, June 5, 2015)While a college or university may not be directly affected by a worker injury, accidents or, even worse, a fatality could result in negative media attention for your project and campus, a poor reputation, and development of doubt in existing contractors’ commitment to improvements in safety – all of these situations could potentially result in future accidents that could even affect campus staff or students. Therefore, what can higher education facilities managers and vice presidents specifically do to reduce error and improve subcontractor safety?  


Hire Contractors with Proven Safety Records

Regardless if you are hiring a CM to manage your project or handling all of the subcontracts yourself, your college or university should undergo a detailed prequalification and screening during the hiring process. During this phase, thoroughly examine the prospective contractor’s three-year safety history, including OSHA Recordable Frequency Rate, Lost Work Day Case Rate, and Lost Work Day Rate. The AGC of New York State (AGC NYS) provides benchmarks to evaluate these numbers on an equal playing field based on company size and number of hours worked in the field. However, it isn’t enough to go by these numbers only, so request client references to inquire about performance, particularly in reference to safety. Then, review the candidate’s current safety program. Beyond rates and violations, look at the contractor’s internal policies and procedures, all of which should illustrate the company’s commitment to safely performing construction work. It would be optimal, although not always possible, to select contractors who employ a full-time Safety Director. This person’s main objective is to execute their company’s overall safety policies and culture, as well as monitor daily operations that include site-specific safety strategies.


Assess Risk by Partnering and Collaborating during Preconstruction

One of the most important (and often overlooked) steps of initiating a construction project on a college or university campus is the importance of institutional leadership partnering with the contractor(s) during preconstruction to assess not only the risks to the budget and schedule, but also where safety risks lie. Especially where unique or heightened hazards associated with specialty work and installations are involved. Utilize a sub’s involvement by performing activity hazard analysis (AHA). This is a great opportunity to incorporate subcontractors’ review and input on your project during the SD or DD phases of design, instead of at bid day, with a complete set of construction documents. Their knowledge is valuable and could avoid future change orders, schedule delays, and accidents. While the preconstruction phase ensures that every step of the project and detailed tasks are thoroughly reviewed (including budget, schedule, constructability, contracts, and resources), more importantly, it also serves as a critical moment for you to observe contractors’ safety cultures and commitment.   


Establish Your Own Campus-Wide Policies 

Project representatives should feel free to establish their own campus-wide policies and include them in both the front end bid documents and final subcontracts as well. Some policies could include requirements for mandatory site personnel background checks, PPE and high-visibility clothing, jobsite signage and fencing, and site cleanliness. You can also require that identification badges, including a photo, full name, emergency contact information, and company name, be worn by site personnel at all times, or that a color-coding or numbering system be used to quickly identify work groups or individuals, with a master list kept in the job trailer, in your office, and with campus security. You can also request specific topics, such as harassment policies and behavior training, be incorporated into subcontractor all-hands safety meetings and Tool Box Talks to address expected conduct on-site, especially for areas of work where students will be nearby. Instituting a zero tolerance policy for lewd and/or harassing behavior for all contractor firms working on site is another way to further enforce this policy. I also recommend requiring random and regular drug testing on all project sites, especially those in a congested area where risk and distractions are higher. This provides an added level of protection since drug testing is most commonly enforced at the beginning of a project and then only when/after an accident occurs.


Safety Should Be an Everyday Concern and Part of a Contractor’s Culture

Subcontractor safety is not the responsibility of a small, select group of individuals. In fact, an established safety culture should permeate every contractor’s organization and through to the field staff. Because accidents often include bystanders or individuals outside of the offender’s own organization, an understanding and commitment to safety through CM oversight, collaboration during preconstruction, and training for potential risks specific to the jobsite should be required of anyone, no matter if they are setting steel or installing carpet. Taking a severe stance on safety, performing your own due diligence, and working collaboratively with the contractor from the moment of hire not only ensures the safety of all, but also ultimately reduces construction costs and completion time, minimizes general liability, and prevents property damage claims and third party lawsuits. 


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