How important are health and safety officers at construction sites? Johan Heyneke, health and safety consultant at Riscon Consultants, explores the issue
Contractor management is one of the key roles that health and safety officers fulfil on construction sites. They have to ensure that all the safety regulations and legislative acts are followed by the contractors (working under the principal contractor), that the working environment is safe and that the general public don’t get in harm’s way.
It's useful to look at the definitions of principal contractors and contractors (or sub-contractors, although this term doesn’t appear in the Occupational Health and Safety Act – OHS Act – or any of the regulations – thus it is technically incorrect to use it).
The “principal contractor” is the contractor who tendered for, and won, a specific tender and was appointed by the client. Contractors (or “sub-contractors”) are directly appointed by the principal contractor on the project to complete smaller specialised jobs – so they play a major role on construction sites.
The industry does have some challenges, however. On one site the client may be fully engaged and want safety to be the top priority. On other sites the client may not value safety in the same way, as they might see it as a waste of time and money – merely seeking contractors to tick the minimum number of boxes to ensure compliance.
This is where the role of health and safety officers is paramount. They should ensure that any additional training or site-specific documents required by the contractors are provided.
Safety officers also need to provide contractors with a list of documents that are required, for example:
• The client’s occupational health and safety (OHS) specifications and the client’s baseline risk assessment;
• Medical examinations;
• A list of the employees appointed;
• A letter of good standing; and
• Risk assessments.
Safety officers also have to work hand in hand with a contractor’s safety representative to ensure that the workplace is kept safe. They have to ensure that the safety representative attends safety committee meetings, which must be held at least once every three months, as stipulated in the OHS Act.
It would, however, be more feasible to hold these meetings once a month. Any on-site challenges, from the contractor’s side, could in this way be brought to the health and safety officer’s attention. The safety officer could also determine if the safety representative is receiving the necessary assistance.
To maintain site safety and to address employees’ concerns, issues arising from these meetings need to be addressed. Safety officers also have to regularly carry out audits and compile reports on the contractor’s safety files to ensure everything is in order.
If the contractor fails to comply, it’s a safety officer’s duty to implement corrective action. If non-conformance continues, a fine should be issued.
In my view, the best approach is for the principal contractor, or the client’s OHS agent, to include a penalty clause in the contractor’s management plan – which states that a fine will be levied if, for example, a contractor allows an employee to work at height without the necessary training or equipment.
These fines don’t only have to be in a monetary form. The clause could state that a contractor will have to pay for the training or buy the necessary safety equipment to correct the non-conformance.
Health and safety officers are usually seen as unnecessarily strict gatekeepers who take things too far … but they’re the ones who sincerely want to prevent accidents and save lives so that all who enter construction sites can, at the end of the day, go home unharmed.