It is common place for many organisations engage contractors to help perform essential business activities and skill-specific tasks. In fact, with around 986,000 people working as independent contractors in Australia, most business will involve a contractor at some point. Contractors can provide substantial business benefits, offering a practical and profitable way of managing varying workloads. But, who is responsible for their safety?

You’ve probably got a good handle on your health and safety responsibilities in regard to your own employees. However, do you know where your contractors fit in? Engaging contractors who don’t understand your organisation’s safety procedures can be a significant risk, as can a failure to adhere to your responsibilities as a business owner, officer or PCBU. You simply can’t afford to be ignorant of the duties you owe to your contactors. It’s vital to understand who is responsible for contractor safety when they are at your workplace.

The Risks of Engaging Contractors

Engaging contractors may sometimes seem like an obvious choice. Bring in the right skills to get the job done on time and on budget. However, there are things that you need to be aware of before they turn up on site to start work. While they offer business benefits, contractors expose you and your business to increased risk factors.

Contractors have a reduced knowledge of your safety management systems and aren’t trained and overseen in the same manners as your employees. The result is that they can pose a considerable risk to safety on site. Not only will your contractors be exposed to existing hazards on your premises, it is possible they will introduce new ones, in turn exposing your current workers.

With legal obligations to provide a working environment that is safe and without danger to worker health, how do you manage the risk introduced by your contractors?

Are You Accountable for Contractor Safety?

The short answer to the question is yes. As a PCBU or Officer under the WHS Act, you have a responsibility for the health and safety of a contractor’s workers when they’re on your worksite. It’s not acceptable to rely solely on the contractor to identify onsite hazards, even when they’ve been hired for specialist knowledge. Nor is it acceptable to delegate your responsibilities.

To fulfil your duty of care under Australian health and safety law, you must provide necessary information, training and supervision to enable everyone on site to work safely. And this includes your contractor’s workers as they are no different from your own employees. Once engaged, your contractors now form part of the system of work for which you are responsible. If they are going to be exposed to hazards and risks, you must put in place the appropriate safe systems of work.

How to Exercise Your ‘Duty of Care’ towards Contractors

Utilising a comprehensive contractor management system is vital if you are going to adequately meet your health and safety obligations. To exercise your duty of care towards contractors, you should address:

  • Selection criteria – selection shouldn’t be solely based on expertise but also on competence and knowledge of WHS matters relevant to the task.
  • Documentation – you should review all documentation such as trade qualifications, licenses, insurances and safe work method statements.
  • Safety induction – contractors should be familiar with your WHS policies and procedures before they start work.
  • Monitoring activities – you should monitor your contractors to ensure they are working in accordance with your contractor management process and WHS legislation.
Surely Contractors Have Responsibilities Too?

Yes, they absolutely do. While you have responsibilities to your contractors, their safety doesn’t sit entirely on your shoulders. Contractors also have their own duty of care while they’re on site. The duty of care isn’t only to their employees, but to everyone at the workplace. Contractors must ensure that no-one’s health or safety is put at risk by their work.

Contractors can meet their duty of care by:

  • Demonstrating an effective OHS management system
  • Consulting with the business about WHS risks
  • Complying with contract-specific WHS requirements
  • Implementing processes to deal with safety issues

Contractors also have specific duties of care under WHS legislation when providing high-risk good and services.

A Joint Responsibility For Safety

When it comes to contractor safety, it’s about concurrent liability. Both your business and the contractor can be held responsible under WHS legislation. In the same way, that you can’t blindly rely on the contractor to identify and manage hazards, the contractor can’t rely on you to ensure the safety of its workers.

Both the business and the contractor have responsibility for on-site safety. As your responsibilities overlap, there should be an effective consultation and communication process to prevent assumptions concerning safety.

Be Hands-On With Contractor Safety

As a business owner, you should always intervene if you see or are made aware of unsafe work practices at your workplace, whether it’s an employee or a contractor at fault. Worker ignorance is a liability for both parties and one that should never be overlooked.

Of course, the extent of either party’s responsibility is dependent on their degree of control over the matter at hand. Demonstrating solid contractor management, sound risk management practices and safe systems of work is critical.

So, now you know. You have a responsibility and can be liable for the safety of your contractors, so don’t put your business and your employees at risk. Look after all workers, and reap the many benefits of engaging contractors.

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