Nitpicking or forensic analysis?

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The plan also referred to facilities on a previous project, out-of-date lists of OHS legislation and Standards and did not correlate to other management or interface plans.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.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

8 thoughts on “Nitpicking or forensic analysis?”

  1. Trevor Deutrom

    July 17 2013

    Kevin, I do concur with your comments. I also have audited many large contractors who have provided great looking Safety Plans. however, when you visit the site reality hits you in the face. In most cases the front line staff (site Managers, etc) have not contributed to writing the plan (site specific) and have no clue of all the promises made to manage safety.


    Trevor Deutrom
    Accreditation & Network Change Manager HSQE (secondment)

    Metro Trains Melbourne
    Level 25, 01Spring Street Melbourne
    Melbourne, VIC, Australia 3000
    Telephone 9610 2631
    Mobile +61 404 813 976

  2. I sometimes whether or not those at senior level who sign off on various plans really understand the implications regarding the documents they are signing. I also wonder whether or not that some people charged with an obligation or responsibility of signing off on documents for an on behalf of an organisation, know what questions to ask (or even why to ask certain questions), and whether or not they take the advice being providing regarding the validity and reliability of the plan on face value.

    There is a role for the \’nit pickers\’ and organisations do need the \’black hat\’ wearers to pull documents apart before are used to put officers and workers at risk. In one way, it is ironic that when a plan cascades down an organisation with various people nodding approval and compliance, only to have the plan reach the workers, and have the workers immediately pick the plan to pieces because of applicability, reliability and validity.

  3. Kevin,
    I agree with everything you wrote. And I don;t see it as \’nitpicking\’. An organisation that undergoes an audit fro whatevere purpose should look forward to the opportunity to improve and fine tune their system.

    Having spent some time as an auditor under the now long defunct NSW WorkCover Premium Discount Scheme, I quickly recognised that within 30 minutes of starting an audit I would know whether I was going to be on site for 4 hours or 8 hours.

    It would be 4 hours for either a well structured and clearly documented WHSMS or a virtually \’non-existent\’ system.

    And it would be 8 hours if there was lots of documentation but it was neither well structured nor clearly written. These were confusing for both the auditor and the operative delegated to provide the auditor with the \’system\’ documentation and evidence.

  4. Hi Mark,
    The Model Act (now law in most jurisdictions) is clear on the obligations of \’duty holders\’ in such situations as you describe:
    at section 46 Duty to consult with other duty holders
    If more than one person has a duty in relation to the same matter under this Act, each person with the duty must, so far as is reasonably practicable, consult, co-operate and co-ordinate activities with all other persons who have a duty in relation to the same matter.

    Hence any WHS Management plan should take into consideration the need for establishing integrated emergency management plans, and processes for dealing with issues where more than one dutiy holder\’s workers may be interacting and/or in close proximity having the potential to affect the health and safety of other duty holders\’ workers.

    As to higher/lower standards between duty holders, my advice would be to instruct relevant workers to apply the higher standard irrespective of which \’duty holder\’ has that higher standard.

    1. Thanks, Les.
      Your approach is absolutely correct and the one that we instruct our people to adopt (hence the agro occasionally directed at our people have copped for refusing to take what they judged as dangerous journeys and also when our people called in the emergency services for a fire in an accommodation hostel when a manager had turned off the fire alarm and allowed hundreds back into the building after a cursory examination and failure to be able to \’read\’ a fire panel).

      In some ways, I feel quite chuffed at the fact that our people HAVE the confidence to stand their ground, knowing that, firstly, they Do know their stuff, because we have trained them well, and, second, that they know we have their backs. Knowing that they won\’t be hung out to dry in the event of a \’challenge\’ is critical to their confidence in implementing good decisions and adopting a pro-active risk management paradigm.

      The rubber meets the road, however, when dealing with the day-to-day on-the-ground realities of working with a highly distributed organisation, where Operations are thousands of kilometres removed from Head Office decision makers and negotiators. Unfortunately, there are still many middle-management troglodytes out there that still view Health, Safety and Environment as inimical to the twin gods of Production and Profitability.

      I also appreciate your observations on the quality of OHSMS, as expressed in the documentation. Confusing and contradictory or out-dated procedures can sometimes be worse than none at all. THINKING that something is \’managed\’ when it is not can lead to disasters that may not occur when you KNOW that it\’s not managed, so, I have to be responsible to think about and implement a solution on the spot and sort out the mess later – if it is to be, its up to me.

  5. Kevin,
    I agree with you when you state \”I would argue that any company that has a carelessly written OHS management plan is unlikely to fully understand its own OHS commitments\”. It is my experience that, almost without exception, the care shown in compiling the documentation is indicative of the organisation\’s attitude to safety. That is why I\’m a little concerned about OFSC possibly lowering their standards on SWMS. Ok, so maybe some of OFSC\’s requirements are OTT, but I want to see documented what it is that a contractor is planning to do and how they plan to go about it. When I get that clear picture it gives me confidence in that that contractor. Again in my experience, the ones who are scanty with the information are the ones who are most likely to have a wide compliance gap.

  6. Thanks, Kevin.
    This is an issue exercising our attention at the moment. Being in the unusual position of being involved in a start-up professional services contract business in Resource Exploration & Project Management, we are having to look at this issue from the Contractor\’s point of view.
    As a small operation, that takes on contract employees as required for a project, dedicated Safety Managers and a budget to create a 50 mm thick lever-arch file WHSMS are a future aspiration.

    Yes, we have some documentation, some clear lines of responsibility and clear directions and training that requires personal responsibility in considerations of health and safety with an emphasis on duty of care for oneself, others, the environment and all external stakeholders.

    However, as your piece suggests, the real issue for us in taking on a contract is: how do our directions and systems compliment, conflict with or even, under what circumstances. over-ride the Client\’s Safety Management System. (Indeed, given the tightening market, what do we do in the event that we feel the Client\’s System, under which our workforce is \’covered\’, is inadequate or not implemented as written?

    Poor on-site communication, control and responsibilities between contractors and clients on mine and exploration-sites etc are common. If several contracting companies (say a Geological Services Company; a Drilling Company; and, maybe, a Cleaning/Catering Company are all working as sub-contractors to the Client at an Exploration Camp on their tenement, 20 km from the client\’s existing mining operation, and a bush-fire comes through the area, who is responsible for alerting the Exploration camp and who has authority to order an evacuation? What communication systems are in place? Who can request the presence of Emergency Services. Under our system – our guys do, but that may create conflict with the Client\’s systems, as in most circumstances, these issues are not clear.

    Trying to sort this out between Head Office types issuing a Contract (where the paperwork and processes may all look fine and seem well understood) and the Field Management and their understanding of, and adherence to the agreed Safety Management System can create some unpleasant surprises. If one of our people try to exercise their right to behave safely (like declining to drive themselves 40 km on a bad dirt track at night after a 15 hour day on Safety/Fatigue grounds) there can be some quite incandescent responses from even Head Office Management (especially those that never manage to extract themselves from the office to actually visit the operations for which they have direct responsibility!)

    We haven\’t had to decline a contract on the basis of an inability to see eye-to-eye so far, but it\’s a serious commercial consideration when being \’noble\’ and doing the obviously right thing may cost the company dearly in another way – a classic lose-lose situation.

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