It is common for regulators, major clients and accreditation bodies to require copies of a detailed health and safety management plan so that they can be assured the contractor is complying with OHS laws and contract safety obligations. Over the years, part of my job has been to assess these plans to determine their quality, validity and applicability. Some have accused me of nitpicking, others have appreciated the pedantry but my perspective is that such plans are a crucial method of establishing and communicating OHS practices and providing a base from which a positive safety culture can be constructed.
I would argue that any company that has a carelessly written OHS management plan is unlikely to fully understand its own OHS commitments. That company would also be providing conflicting and confusing safety information to its own workforce and its subcontractors.
Inaccuracies and inconsistencies
One example that comes to mind was a large company who submitted an OHS management plan which detailed many safety commitments, what I consider “promises”. However, there were inconsistencies such as the person who was responsible and accountable for safety at the start of the plan, let’s say a “safety manager”, and who was not mentioned any further. The rest of the plan mentioned other safety people, such as officers, coordinators and supervisors. Legally these titles attract different levels of accountability but this was not clear because of the sloppiness of the plan’s construction.
The plan also referred to facilities on a previous project, out-of-date lists of OHS legislation and Standards and did not correlate to other management or interface plans.
Nitpicking? Perhaps, but such a plan would cause legal headaches for the company if prosecuted after an incident. More importantly, no one in the company had a clear understanding of who had OHS responsibility for what. The lack of clarity generated confusion yet such OHS plans are intended to minimise or eliminate confusion. In a contractual context, a client expects the contractor to have a reliable and robust OHS management plan. Without nitpicking, this plan would have been accepted as a workable document when this clearly was not the case. The lack of analysis by the client would also have reflected very poorly on the client with the possible accusation that there was insufficient diligence.
Compliance Codes and OHS Management Plans
Three Australian States have, or are introducing, compliance codes for those construction companies tendering for government infrastructure projects. OHS is a vital consideration in these tender evaluations and it is likely that some forensic pedantry will be applied to the OHS management plans. These codes have a structure that requires contractors to establish clear OHS obligations and accountabilities and to communicate and enforce these throughout their subcontractor arrangements. This makes the contractor’s OHS management plan a pivotal document for both safety and contractual duties.
One government, Victoria, is developing an OHS management plan template for use with the construction compliance code. Given that many of the companies tendering for infrastructure work are tier-1 contractors, an OHS template could seem a little patronising as most of these companies would already have a plan that meets, or exceeds, the template’s criteria. A better approach may be to outline or detail the elements of the OHS management plan and have the companies commit to including these in their plans but this reflects the existing approach of Australian Standard AS4801, a standard that is beginning to show its age. However such a process may complicate the tender assessment process, and stretch the scant technical resources of the various compliance units. Regardless, forensic analysis is likely to occur and companies need to prepare.
Plans are part of a communication strategy
Safety management plans are communication tools to external regulators and internal employees but also, increasingly, to subcontractors. This added dimension may come as a shock to some because not only must effort be given to educating one’s own workforce but also that of one’s subcontractors. The days of giving a subbie an OHS plan and saying “these are the rules you have to follow” are gone. OHS due diligence encourages companies to take an active role in the OHS management plans and systems of their subcontractors, a level of engagement that can’t be simply tossed to the subbie.
OHS management plans will have an expanded audience and that audience must be considered when writing the OHS management plan or, at least, communicating that plan to the subcontractors. It is likely that a single “welcome to the project” induction meeting will be insufficient to ensure a good understanding of the plan and an active engagement back to the principal contractor. Such a management plan needs to an active plan rather than commandments at the start of a contract. This is a further reason that OHS management plans will attract greater attention and analysis.
Is all this red tape? Perhaps, but it will be a contractual requirement for many government contracts and these requirements, through the construction compliance codes, are designed to establish an operational safety benchmark that will flow through the rest of the business communities.
OHS management plans will be open to scrutiny from a broader range of stakeholders than the current mix of contractors, subbie and, maybe, the client. These plans need to be tighter in their wording and clearer in the OHS responsibilities and accountabilities. They need to be structured so that the communication of essential OHS elements is readily understood, or the plans need to be supported by a communication strategy for all the relevant stakeholders.
I see the nitpicking as assisting in removing anomalies, inconsistencies and mistakes in OHS management plans so that everyone in the workplace, on the project or associated with the project knows what to do, when to do it and what to do if something goes wrong. You can rest assured such analysis will occur after an incident and by prosecutors, regulators and lawyers. Early analysis and revision will provide them with less grounds for complaint and improve your overall OHS management.