Successfully Negotiating Safety Issues with Contractors

Jordan Hollingsworth, ASP, CHST, CHSP
Safety Advisor

A safety professional is performing his afternoon observation of the work on a hospital expansion. He glances over at part of the structure and notices a pair of electricians who are leaning out of a manlift as they struggle to position a length of heavy cable. As he walks up to them, what’s going to happen?

Most people would reply, “That depends upon what he says and how he says it.” But the real answer is that it depends upon how he began working with them at the beginning of the project. That’s when the relationship between safety professionals and the workers they protect takes shape, and how those initial conversations happen has a powerful impact on day-to-day workplace safety.

We’ve all seen the safety “enforcers” who stroll onto a site like Barney Fife, looking for reasons to yell at the people working there and write up violations. “Hey, fella — you’re breaking the rules and I’m here to set you straight!” The workers hope that Barney moves along and bothers somebody else today. Their relationship with the resident safety cop is adversarial, and instead of focusing on safe practices, they put their effort into tricking him.

The simple fact is that if the guys in field do not respect the safety pro, he or she isn’t going to be able to achieve the desired results. And earning that respect begins from the first conversations with contractors, because that’s when you start to negotiate the safety issues on the site.

The most important point in a safety professional’s working relationship with a contractor is those initial conversations in which ground rules are being established and each party is getting a sense of how the other thinks and works. If you’ve had positive experiences with the contractor in the past, that tends to be easier.

Suppose, though, that you’re working with a new contractor or craft person for the very first time. They’ve come to your site with rules and habits (both bad and good) that they’ve picked up on other jobsites. It becomes the safety professional’s job to “tune them up,” as I like to put it. In other words, you take what the other person knows and adapt it to the rules and needs of the site.

Orientation is a big part of that. Besides making the contractors aware of the ground rules, an effective safety professional will ensure that they understand that it’s everyone’s job to make sure everybody goes home safe each and every day. I also point out that when it comes to safety, there are no stupid questions, and I invite them to contact me at any time.

They also need to understand that anyone who won’t comply with the safety program cannot work on the jobsite. Period. It’s tough to remove a worker and tell him that he’s no longer welcome, but removing that one worker may save dozen others from meeting the same fate. Word spreads quickly that safety is being taken seriously, and that there will be consequences for those who don’t want to be part of the program.

Enforcing the rules fairly, consistently, and in a respectful manner is the next step. The Barney Fifes of the safety world often treat workers who are breaking a rule as though they’re stupid. When they see someone on the top of a ladder, they’ll yell, “Get off of there! What do you think you’re doing?” A safety professional who values the workers’ respect will instead walk up and say, “Hey, do you think you can get a taller ladder for that?” The next time the safety professional comes around, that worker will be using a more appropriate ladder.

Maintaining that respect is particularly challenging when the contractor has more experience (and gray hairs) than the safety professional who is pointing out his error. They’ll say, “I’ve been doing it this way for 20 years, and I’ve never been hurt.” For example, when I encounter a worker who is standing up on the rails of a scissor lift, I’ll hear, “This is the only way I could reach what I needed to reach.” Of course, there’s nearly always a safer way to handle the situation, and taking the time to talk it through and explain the advantages demonstrates a concern for the contractor.

In some cases, you have to draw from a higher power — such as the specific OSHA regulation or even the operating manual for the equipment that’s being used — to make your case. Sharing stories of accidents on sites you’ve supervised can point out the consequences of ignoring safety rules. Those recollections make the situation real to them, and reinforce your interest in their well-being, rather than in just enforcing the rules.

I’ve focused on dealing with the negative situations, but one excellent tool for building that all-important respect is reinforcing positive behavior. I always carry a pocketful of gas cards on the jobsite. I’ll stop and talk to the tradesman along the way, and when I encounter one who is doing a great job of wearing all the required PPE and following the right steps, I’ll hand him the gas card and thank him for working safely. That always gets his co-worker’s attention, and it breaks the ice with everyone.

If you remember the basics of negotiating safety rules with contractors — primarily treating them in a respectful manner, making sure they know the ground rules, pointing out errors in a constructive way, and rewarding positive behavior — you’ll find that compliance will increase. Best of all, you won’t have to act like a safety cop.

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