Contractor Safety Management—Getting Back to Basics

Jul 14th, 2012 | By | Category: Health and Safety

Contractor safety is an industry issue.  Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several integrated oil companies to improve their contractor safety management programs (CSMP). Enlightened companies have been tackling high contractor injury rates with detailed and well thought out CSMP programs that cover the entire life cycle of the contracting process from contractor selection to job completion.  These companies have developed eloquent multiple step programs to improve contractor safety.

These processes are terrific. But they are doomed to fail unless the basics of implementation are tackled correctly.  After reviewing a “new, improved CSMP initiative” at one organization, the business unit head raised his voice, pounded his fists and asked, “What’s going to be different this time?”

His challenge was appropriate.  Eloquent processes don’t prevent contractors from getting hurt.


Using Gemba for Contractor Safety

Fundamentally, implementing contractor safety programs isn’t any different than implementing personal or process safety programs.  Leadership needs to be visible on the front line, and the attitudes of the company’s leaders needs to be felt by employees and contractors.  The questions leaders ask of contractors (and employees) set the tone for what’s important in terms of safety.  To enhance the success of these questions, successful companies are using a principle from lean manufacturing, “Gemba Walks,” to further the dialog between leaders and contractors. Gemba Walks is a technique that encourages managers to go out and see the work place rather than passively receiving information at their desk. The guides for Gemba Walks provide prompts that leaders can use to ask contractors questions when they are in the field.  These conversations lead not only to fruitful discussion, but also to identification of problems and an opportunity to solve safety issues in a collaborative way.  These field-based conversations also help to build trust between the company and its contractors. 


Capacity Building

Where most organizations fail in CSMP implementation is forgetting to ensure that the needed capacity to manage contractors is available. For example, the average maintenance manager at one super major oil company had to manage more than 30 contracts.  To expect that he understood, spent time with and engaged in ongoing dialog with all his contractors was fool-hardy.  Instead, that responsibility had to be clearly delegated in manageable chunks of three to five contracts to his subordinates or other people within the organization. In this way, the organization was able to ensure that a contract holder was responsible for every contractor, but it required a serious resource commitment from the company.

Once contract holders have been identified, expectations for contractor safety and the contract holders’ personal performance must be clearly communicated, usually as goals in the performance appraisal process. Contract holders must also be trained in their role—it’s not safe to assume that a newly appointed contract holder will know how to structure a supplier meeting, track actions, and conduct Gemba activities. They need to learn, practice and perfect these skills.  A 20-slide training presentation isn’t sufficient. It takes formal training, practice, feedback, and coaching to make them successful.



Governance is an often forgotten component of CSMP. Someone locally must care about the program.  A joint team comprised of operations, maintenance, safety, and procurement is a great starting place for building a governance team.  It might also be possible to include a contractor or two as part of the process. 

The governance team should be looking at capacity (right people), capability (right skills), accountability (clear objectives), and performance (metrics) of the contractor program. 

As with other areas of safety, a blend of leading and lagging indicators is helpful when monitoring contractor performance.  Start with the basics

  • Does every contract have a contract holder?
  • Does every contract have the required language?
  • Has risk been identified with proper mitigation approaches?
  • Is someone meeting with the contractor? How often”
  • Are action items being developed that will make a difference in performance?
  • Are action items being completed?

Without these basics around implementation, the best contractor safety programs will fail, and it will only be a matter of time before the business unit leader pounds his fists again and demands something different and more effective. 


Guiding Principles for Contractor Safety

An organization that is seeking to improve its contractor safety program would do well to keep these guiding principles in mind

  • Contractor safety doesn’t happen from behind a desk. Observe contractors in their work areas and engage them in discussions about their safety programs and procedures. Consider using Gemba Walks to help you with this process.
  • Make sure contract holders have the capacity to spend adequate time with their contractors.
  • Build contractor holder capability by training them on how to conduct contractor safety reviews and engage more effectively with their contractors.
  • Have simple action tracking tools and regular contractor meetings to review how well performance gaps are being closed. Create leading and lagging indicators based on the interactions of the contractor and the contract holder.
  • Have a clear CSMP governance process at the local level.


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: Paint Waves 5 by Billy Alexander, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA.  


Return to the EHS Journal Home Page

Tags: , , ,

3 Comments to “Contractor Safety Management—Getting Back to Basics”

  1. […] Contractor Safety Management—Getting Back to Basics […]

  2. […] Contractor Safety Management—Getting Back to Basics […]

  3. […] Contractor Safety Management—Getting Back to Basics […]

Leave a Comment