Is Your Contractor Safety Program in the Toilet? Maybe it Should Be!

Oct 8th, 2012 | By | Category: Health and Safety

On a recent visit to a well site in West Texas, we stumbled (well, not really… we were escorted) upon the woman who cleans out the on-site port-a-potty. What was her greatest hazard? Gas.  And not the type of gas normally associated with a port-a-potty.

This was an active drill site with sour crude.  This means that H2S (hydrogen sulfide) could be present. H2S is a deadly gas that only requires low concentrations to bring a person down and kill them.  It’s a serious safety issue. It requires training, monitoring and ‘constant awareness,’ or it can kill.

The person who cleans, maintains and empties the port-a-potty is not at the top of the pay scale and the knowledge and skills required to perform this job is nowhere near as complex as a gas plant operator. And yet, her job poses just as much personal risk as any other position in the oil patch.

During a safety walk-through, we asked the lady what her greatest job risks were. She very quickly stated that she has two: H2S and driving.

We then followed up and asked how she deals with that risk. She very quickly exclaimed:

 “H2S can kill you. I wear a monitor and I look at the wind sock. I know which way to move if there’s a release and I look at the day’s JSA when I walk onto site.  As far as driving, the company won’t allow me to speed and I can’t drive when I’m tired.”

Impressive response, we thought. She knew the requirements, had the PPE, had the knowledge and knew the procedures for her job. We then asked what she would do if she saw something unsafe. The piece de resistance!  

“I can stop the job,” she said.

“Really?” we asked. “Any job?  You feel comfortable stopping a job?”

“Really,” she replied.

 So, what does it take to get a contractor to be aware of their hazards, understand their requirements and feel empowered to stop a job?

While it takes a lot of effort to get employees and contractors to this level of performance, we propose that there are three essentials:

  1. Clear Contractor Requirements
  2. Operational Discipline
  3. Leadership


Contractor Requirements

It’s necessary, but not sufficient, to have clear requirements in the contract.  Contracts need to be administered by people and people need to care.  That means trusting your contractor and verifying that they meet requirements.  Are contractors trained? Do they know the procedures? Are they following the procedures? Are they working safely? Do they have the right equipment? How do you know?

Are you asking these questions once a year (or less) or is it integrated into how you manage your contract work force?


Operational Discipline

Operational discipline is about having good procedures that are known and followed. Employees and contractors need to be aware of these procedures and leaders must be visible and felt in their application.  Leaders do this by walking the talk and verifying that procedures are present, accurate, known, and followed.



Managers need to show that safety is important. They need to engage their employees and contractors to make sure they understand the job hazards. This includes all employees and contractors, regardless of the job.

Managers need to work with contracting companies to verify that contractors know the hazards associated with their jobs and how to mitigate these hazards.  Managers also need to ensure that required training is provided and that the necessary competencies are present. When the contracting company is doing well, they need to know it. When they aren’t, have a discussion, agree on actions and track completion of the agreed upon tasks.

The Japanese principle of going to where the work takes place, or the ‘Gemba,’ is critical to safety. Managers lead by doing and by the questions they ask. If contractor safety is important, the manager must be out there at the Gemba and engaging contractors in safety conversations. All contractors.

Leaders also set the tone for culture.  At its best, a culture of caring is established where everyone at a work site looks out for each other. That means intervening when an unsafe act or condition exists.


What to Do Differently

In your organization, can you walk up to any contractor, regardless of the job and skill level and be assured that the individual knows their risks and their role in mitigating those risks? If that question makes you nervous (it should), we suggest the following:

  •  Go to Gemba – talk to your contractor’s employees and engage them in conversations in their work areas.
  •  Engage Contractors – Ensure your contractors know that safety is important to you and be relentless in your dialog about safety.
  •  Instill Operational Discipline – Ensure that there are procedures and that those procedures are known and followed.
  • Trust and Verify – Pick an aspect of operations and safety and engage your contractors to verify that your requirements are being met. If not, develop a plan to get into compliance.


About the Author

Laurence Pearlman is a Director with Corven, Inc. in Lisle, Illinois, U.S.A. He advises energy and natural resource clients on safety performance improvement and change management. Laurence specializes in engaging employees and leaders to drive ownership and sustainability of safety processes. Previously, Laurence worked for Amoco, BP, Exxon, and Pfizer. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois. He was part of the team that assessed the culture of BP Refining after the Texas City incident and identified leadership and cultural interventions to reduce risk. He holds degrees from the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa.


EHS Journal Articles by Laurence Pearlman


Image: Antelope Canyon by Judy Smith, Vernal, Utah, U.S.A.


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3 Comments to “Is Your Contractor Safety Program in the Toilet? Maybe it Should Be!”

  1. Nice thoughts.

    One thing companies can do to improve safety when contractors are working is provide clear contractor (and/or visitor) safety orientations.

    The contractor is more likely to learn, remember, and apply/follow the safety rules if:
    1. The orientation includes words and visuals (as in a movie, video, or animation)
    2. The material engages the contractor’s interest

    One great way to do this is to use an online contractor orientation system. The contractor can access the orientation materials online, watch an engaging video orientation, and be required to pass a test to confirm that he/she understands the important material. And this is all before the contractor arrives on site.

    Records can be kept that the contractor completed the orientation, and the system can even store information about when the contractor needs to repeat the orientation (one or two years later, for example).

    Here’s a link that shows how one of these systems works:

  2. […] Is Your Contractor Safety Program in the Toilet? Maybe it Should Be! […]

  3. […] Is Your Contractor Safety Program in the Toilet? Maybe it Should Be! […]

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