The burden of  Inconsistency on a very touchy subject

The burden of Inconsistency on a very touchy subject

Submitted by an industry professional

Safety files and safety officers – a different requirment for every site creates undeserved weight for all contractors. A simplified system should be sought out by stakeholders.

This article is not about cutting corners and taking chances, but if you have been on the short end of the stick when it comes to a site’s safety compliance requirements, you are not alone. This has been a particular challenge for the industry for many years.

Companies already spend up to hundreds of thousands of rands annually to have employees certified in various forms of safety and compliance with the requirements of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA).

This employee training and certification also takes between 10 and 15 days of additional manpower a year (on average) per employee, and covers refresher training and even so far as the need to remove bad habits or short-cuts that are developed over the years, so, a contractor’s teams are usually well-equipped in this regard by default.

In order to firstly qualify wih the requirements for a safety file when working on a site, contractors must ensure their staff are correctly trained in various degrees of competence, including roles such as: safety compliance, fire fighting, first aid, scaffold erecting, working at height, scaffold inspectors, and so on, on top of competence in working with tools and regular medical tests.

The challenges start from the time you quote in the tendering process based on the needs of the site, and often calculating this cost is very risky. With safety elements you never know what to expect, because each site – and subsequent site safety manager – requires different things – you quote too high to try and anticipate the costs and you land up losing the contract, or, quote too low and then you are out of pocket when it costs you double your allocation.

The process and costs for a safety file are also highly dependent on the site’s safety officer – whom you know can’t be upset for any reason at all because they are notorious for making your life difficult if questioned or if you complain about the process. They are also very good at reminding you of the fact of their importance – irrespective of the experience of your team. Although this is a general statement, more often than not this is the actual case. Ask any contractor how many times they have had an issue in this regard!

This behviour can come down to a number of things, but control is generally the most accurate way to describe it. The site safety officer has the power, and this can be misdirected and misused to make a point, which is unnecessary given the lengths we already have to go to.

We all know how important safety is on site, and injury and loss of life must be avoided at all costs, but the reality is that enforcing very particular tasks required to get onto a particular site is not necessary because ultimately it just accrues more costs to the client at the end of the day. Even within the same organisation at different sites there is no standard. Safety officers are not helpful nor consistent, and further, hardly offer any assistance – they will rather kick you off the site for the day for a menial signature being missing than the opportunity to take a few seconds to correct the ‘required protocol’, which is then different for another site.

Costs includes multiple travelling to the site to discuss items that could have been addressed prior, insisting on medical certification through an appointed practitioner when medical certificates are already in place, inductions and supervisor training where one of the site’s safety supervisors could have accompanied the contractor for a couple of hours rather than going through the whole process that can take days or weeks, compliance to entire site rules that have nothing to do with the contractors for example maintenance on an air conditioner at the office building but having to comply to heavy machinery or civils work, and then one of the greater complaints being the use of indexing and ordering of documentation – if everything is supplied, valid and in order, what does it matter if a letter of good standing is first, fourth or last on the index in the file? Or worse, if the file is black and not blue or vice versa and then rejected!

These are all real situations a contractor has to negotiate with each job. How can a safety file be rejected due to the ordering of an index based on a particular safety officers preference? Or, halfway through a three-year contract, there is a change in site safety officers and the new officer doesn’t like the previous officer’s methodology and then forces all contractors to re-supply their safety files according to his or her preference? This does not make logical sense and creates additional burdens for all companies on a site.

As far as the OSHA is concerned, a site and the safety requirements to be observed and adhered to are the same. Some sites do require additional measures in compliance and will vary slightly depending on size and type – a mine for example has extremely strict requirements, as do industrial sites where there is elevated risk, this is followed by general construction sites, right down to residential developments where that particular risk assessment needs to be done accordingly. Why then can there not be a standardised way in which safety files are completed and safety officers accept these files based on the job/work at hand?

"We all know how important safety is on site, and injury "We all know how important safety is on site, and injury and loss of life must be avoided at all costs."

The current ‘way of doing things’ is flawed and onerus where often a week’s job takes a week alone to get your safety file approved, or the cost in order to get the safety file signed off by the safety officer costs more than the actual installation or maintenance work.

The current system is also a lot more stressful on smaller companies when, for example, completing a job only needs four team members because perhaps its heavy lifting as some compressors weigh alot, but then you have to appoint eight employees to do the job because someone has to be a representative, the safety officer, a firefighter, first aider, scaffold erector or scaffold inspector – but all these roles have to be fulfilled by different people!

There must be a better, and more consistent system that can be implemented where duplicate roles are also eliminated. Yes, life must be protected at all costs but the question is, why do we have to struggle for years addressing the same issues?

Surely industry can come together and standardise a protocol on safety files, safety officers’ conduct and the overall process of site safety. Perhaps once again the bell needs to be rung to try and gain some consistency for all contractors, and ultimately save everyone unnecessary effort and costs – again, not to be confused with taking shortcuts! 


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