If your business or organisation uses the services of a contractor – a non-employee commissioned to undertake work for you – then both you and the contractor will have duties under health and safety law.

It’s important that employers understand these duties and how to meet them, as failing to comply with health and safety law can result in significant penalties.

Employers’ duties

Employers often mistakenly believe that their health and safety responsibilities are transferred to a contractor when that contractor agrees to carry out work for them. In reality, the law requires employers to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure health and safety is maintained when engaging contractors. This makes any delegation of duties very tough because doing everything reasonably practicable with contractors requires, at the very least, that you do everything within your power to ensure health and safety in the way you select, instruct and provide contractors with information.

The following information summarises what you need to do to comply with health and safety law when using contractors. However, it does not apply to temporary or agency workers. More specific information about them is available through the HSE here.

When using contractors, you must:

Select a suitable contractor

This means making sure they have the sufficient skills and knowledge to carry out the job safely and without putting themselves or others at risk.

Identify all aspects of the work you want the contractor to undertake.

Then carefully consider the health and safety implications involved.

Make sure that the contractor/subcontractor is aware of your risk assessment findings.

You should already have risk assessments for your own work activities, and contractors must assess the risks for their contracted work. Both parties must then get together to consider any risks from each other’s work that could affect people’s health and safety.

Provide contractors/subcontractors with information on the risks from your activities and the controls you have in place.

This information could be included in the job specification so that it is clear what is expected of them. It may also be useful to consider, with the contractor/subcontractor, what instruction and training they will need.

Set up liaison arrangements for co-operation and co-ordination with all those responsible to ensure health and safety.
Decide what needs to be done to manage and supervise the contractor/subcontractor’s work.

Agree the nature of controls before work starts.

Step 1: Select contractors carefully

You need to be satisfied the contractor can do the job safely and without risk to health. This means making enquiries about their competence: do they have the right combination of skills, experience and knowledge? The required degree of competence will depend on the work. Similarly, the level of enquiries you need to make will depend on the level of risk and the complexity of the job.

Example questions to ask potential contractors include:

  • What arrangements will they make for managing the work? For example, who will be responsible, how will work be supervised, what checks will be made on equipment and materials, etc?
  • Will they be using subcontractors? If so, how will they check their competence? The level of competence for subcontractors again depends on the level of risk and complexity involved.
  • What is their recent health and safety record? How many accidents and ill health cases have they had? Has the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) taken any action against them?
  • Do they have a written Health & Safety Policy? While this is only required by law if five or more people are employed, it is always good practice to have one.
  • Can they provide existing risk assessments done for similar jobs? Written risk assessments are again only required if five or more people are employed but will provide reassurance that any hazards associated with the work have been managed appropriately.
  • What qualifications, skills and experience do they have in this type of work?
  • What health and safety information and training do they give their workers?

Such due diligence may help to determine whether the contractor is complying with their duties under health and safety law, which will enable you to decide how much evidence you require to support what you’ve been told.

Other considerations that may help you to select a competent contractor include:

  • Do they have independent assessment of their competence?
  • Are they members of a trade association or professional body?
  • Will they provide a safety method statement for the job? While a safety method statement isn’t legally required, it describes exactly how a job is to be safely carried out, detailing the risks identified in the risk assessment and the measures needed to control them. This allows a job to be properly planned and resourced.

Step 2: Assess your risks and theirs

Both you and the contractor/subcontractor need to think about the planned contract work. Ask yourself:

  • What can harm people?
  • Who might be harmed and how?
  • How can the risks be controlled?

More detailed information on risk assessment and control is available through the HSE here.

Make sure that risk assessments for your work activities cover risks to contractors. Contractors/subcontractors are additionally required to assess the risks for the contracted work. You will then need to liaise with one another to consider any risks arising from the other’s work.

Think about any risks to your workers and members of the public caused by the contracted work and ensure appropriate control measures are agreed with the contractor/subcontractor before work starts.

Step 3: Provide instruction, information and training

Regular communication with the contractor/subcontractor throughout the process is essential.

Make sure that they and their workers have information on:

  • The health and safety risks they may face.
  • Measures in places to deal with those risks.
  • Your emergency procedures.
  • Your health and safety procedures and policies.

All parties, including your own employees, should be given information, instruction and training on anything that may affect health and safety. Any information provided should be in a format that is easily understandable.

Step 4: Work together

To prevent mistakes and misunderstanding, it is important to ensure there is co-operation and co-ordination at all times between you/your staff and the contractor/subcontractor. One way to do this is to hold regular meetings throughout.

The required degree of co-operation and co-ordination will depend on:

  • The job to be done.
  • The number of contractors or subcontractors involved.
  • The risks present.

Step 5: Consult your workforce

Always consult with employees about changes in the workplace that could substantially affect their health and safety. Not only is this a requirement under health and safety law, but involving employees may help you to better decide on the measures needed to control risks.

Consult your workers on:

  • How the contractor’s work will affect their health and safety.
  • Information and training.
  • How to raise concerns about the contractor’s work.

Step 6: Manage/supervise the work

Think about how you will manage the contractor’s work. The measures needed will depend on the level of risk; the greater the risk, the more you will need to do. Consider:

  • Who will be responsible for the work?
  • What do you expect them to do?
  • Who will supervise the work and how?
  • How will the work be carried out and what precautions will be in place?
  • What equipment should or should not be worked on and/or used?
  • What personal protective equipment will be used and who is to provide it?
  • What working procedures are there, including any permits-to-work?
  • What arrangements are there for stopping work in the event of serious health and safety concerns?

Once work starts, check how the job is going against what was agreed and whether control measures are working effectively. Any near misses, accidents or ill health must be investigated; ask what went wrong and what could be done to prevent it happening again.

After the work has finished, you should review and learn from any lessons to see if things can be improved in future.

The HSE has published a useful guide on managing contractors, HSG159.

While this guide is intended for SMEs in the chemical industry, it is of use to other industries and larger companies..

The consequences of poor contractor management

Unfortunately, employers are all too often fined for failing in their contractor health and safety management duties.

Common cases include failing to:

Ensure a contractor/subcontractor's competence
Supervise a contractor/subcontractor properly
Provide sufficient information about risks
Exercise a duty of care towards a contractor/subcontractor
Provide a formal site induction, risk assessment or method statement

Need expert support?

At Ellis Whittam, our nationwide team of qualified Health & Safety Consultants help employers to simplify health and safety compliance and meet their legal duties confidently. In addition to unlimited support from a named consultant, our fixed-fee service includes on-site assistance with risk assessments, a bespoke Health & Safety Policy and access to our award-winning software to help you monitor your compliance at a glance. Owing to the quality of our advice, support and safety management systems, we reduce the risk of prosecution by c.50% and the cost of any fine imposed by more than 85%.

If you would like professional guidance on managing contractors or any other aspect of health and safety in your workplace, call 0345 226 8393 to discuss your needs and the range of support available.

ONLINE TRAINING | IOSH Safety for Executives and Directors

Looking to improve your understanding of health and safety, demonstrate your commitment to employee wellbeing, and protect your business from prosecution? Learn essential skills in effective risk management, including how to create a COVID-secure workplace, with this one-day course for business owners, senior managers and directors.

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