Contracting and casual hire pose OHS risks

ABB is a leader in power and  automation technologies that enable utility and industry customers to improve their performance while lowering environmental impact. The ABB Group of companies operates in around 100 countries and employs about 115,000 people.
ABB?s goal is to ?stop hurting people? by fully integrating health and safety into all we do, encouraging safety leadership at every level, recognising that all incidents are preventable, and ensuring that appropriate resources are available to achieve world-class performance. ABB?s principles of respect, responsibility and determination, are embedded into every level of the organisation and drive our safety culture. The ABB safety principle is to ?Deliver safely, on budget, on time, in full, to the right quality?.

ABB strives to provide a safe and healthy working environment at all sites and  facilities that it owns and operates, and to take adequate steps to prevent incidents and injury to health arising out of the course of work by minimising or eliminating so far as is reasonably practicable, the causes of hazards inherent in the working environment. Everyone in ABB has a health and safety leadership role, from the CEO to front line operators. Everyone is responsible for their own safety and that of their  colleagues and work partners.

In Australia, ABB is involved in a  diverse range of activities that includes manufacturing, project management and field service. ABB employ approximately 1800 direct employees and engages a  similar number of contract, casual and labour hire personnel.

In today?s world, occupational health and safety (OHS) needs to meet the challenges of an ageing workforce, This means less experienced and appropriately skilled workers, resulting in an increase in the use of labour hire (casual labour) and contractors as well as the challenge of standardising programmes and procedures when dealing with countries with wide cultural differences and demands. Similarly, with the recent economic downturn, many companies have put a hold on recruitment, which  often results in greater numbers of contractor and labour hire staff being employed.

Increase in the use of labour hire workers has been a global trend over the past 30 years.  These workers are hired out by an agent to host organisations for periods of time lasting from hours to months or even years.  There is a growing body of research that indicates labour hire workers are at increased risk of injury at work due to lack of training, unfamiliarity with the workplace, poor integration with the permanent workforce, being used on higher risk tasks, and to lack of supervision, extended hours or working multiple jobs.

Employers are required by OHS legislation to provide workers with information,  instruction, training and supervision to  enable them to perform their work in a manner that does not expose them to  hazards. Companies with risk tolerant  cultures take a minimalist approach to these requirements. They provide induction with a checklist mentality – ticking off the items and filing it away. This, they believe erroneously, is sufficient to fulfil their duty of care obligations. 

Unfortunately, some companies often fail to appreciate the  importance and benefits of employee training and development as part of their overall risk management strategy.  Inexperienced workers have lower levels of  competencies than experienced well-trained workers and are a greater source of risk to the business. They tend to have more  accidents and to inadvertently cause damage to company assets. They are less safe and less efficient.

ABB takes a different approach and has outlined the health and safety expectations that support the company OHS policy and comprise the framework of the health and safety culture we are pursuing in ABB. One of these expectations is ?Contractors and business partners?. This expectation requires projects to manage OHS throughout the project life cycle, project managers to have completed project safety training, contractors to go through a pre-qualification process including assessment of competency, and for systems to exist to monitor the performance of contractors and business partners against agreed standards.

Despite senior management commitment and robust policies and procedures, ABB still has issues with managing the safety  of labour hire and contract employees. Some of the key issues faced here in  Australia include:

? Communication between ABB and contracting companies.
Within ABB?s manufacturing plants,  communication with contractors and labour hire personnel is managed well. It is relatively easy to know who is on site at any given time, what work is being performed, who is supervising, whether the contractors have been inducted and if risk assessments have been completed. 
If problems arise, verbal communication can take place quickly and easily. Ensuring adequate communication takes place  between ABB and contractors in our service business is a different story. Many contractors operating in rural and remote parts of Australia are utilised to construct, service and maintain power, automation and telecommunication infrastructure on behalf of ABB. Regular face to face communication is often not possible in these situations so phone calls and emails are the main method of communicating with contractors. At times this results in breakdowns in communication channels and a dilution of safety messages and directives, increasing the risk of incidents and injuries. 
? Late reporting of incidents.
Occasionally, workers engaged though contractors get injured whilst performing their duties and fail to report it through the correct channels. The first ABB hears of these injuries are when a certificate of  capacity is handed in several days later or the injury appears on a monthly report. Prompt injury reporting would allow  adequate injury management to be  implemented and ensure that injured workers receive the appropriate care and rehabilitation they require. It also improves the organisation?s statistics in relation to lost time injuries.
? Misalignment of safety cultures between the host and contract organisation.
At times ABB works with contractors and business partners that do not share our commitment to safety. Failure to adequately spell out the safety expectations to contracting organisations prior to engaging them has led to disputes about how the work should be done safely, delays in projects and cost blowouts. The upside of having higher safety standards compared to other organisations has allowed ABB to use OHS as a selling point when we are tendering for projects or contracting out our services. In some cases, ABB have led improvements in safety systems and culture when working for our clients.

? Contract work taking place in remote locations.
In addition to issues relating to communication and delayed incident reporting, utlising contractors in remote locations presents additional problems for ABB. Many parts of our business service and support the mining industry located in remote parts of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.  Excessive heat, cyclones, floods, remote driving and extended working hours are all issues that need to be planned for and managed. Failure to adequately manage the hazards associated with remote locations has caused problems for ABB in the past.

? Contractors failing to identify hazards.
The ability to identify hazards, those sources of energy that can cause harm, is not one isolated to ABB employees. This issue extends to contractors and labour hire employees and is an ongoing  challenge. Over the years ABB has had many incidents where contract employees have failed to adequately identify the hazards associated with the work they are performing. We have had people drill through gas pipes, fall through roofs, trip over gutters, fall onto picket fences, get bitten by dogs and cause arc flashes on electrical panels. Continued diligence is required to ensure that hazard management training and hazard identification processes are cascaded though to the contractors and labour hire personnel utilised by ABB.

? Lack of safety leadership from ABB supervisors and managers in relation to managing contractors.
Unfortunately, there are still some  managers and supervisors who believe  that OHS responsibilities can be contracted out. Some people within ABB believe that by engaging a contractor to perform a task on our behalf means that we are no longer responsible for the work. They lack adequate education and experience in  relation to contractor management and OHS legal responsibilities. They don?t understand that if something was to go wrong, they would need to be able to demonstrate what they had done to try and prevent the incident from occurring (ie demonstrate due diligence). Many of the issues listed above – communication, incident reporting, hazard identification, etc – could be managed better within ABB if there was more safety leadership from our front line managers and supervisors who are engaging contractors.

ABB have been working hard to try and address the OHS issues arising from the engagement of labour hire employees and contractor management.

In the last few years ABB has demonstrated a sustained effort in building a standardised OHS Management System across its  worldwide operations. The implementation and compliance with this system has been measured both locally and globally and been a key measure in managers? scorecards. ABB has established a regional network of experienced safety professionals who provide support to the individual country safety teams, the aim being to create the cultural change required to encourage proactive safety behaviours.  

Promoting behavioural safety within  ABB is a key element in delivering a safer workplace in the long term.  For our  management systems to be effective we must ensure that everyone, from the ?boardroom to the shop floor?, is engaged and  participating in making ABB a safe company.  

One of the main goals for ABB in recent years has been to establish an interdependent safety culture, where people work as teams, value each other and genuinely believe that no one should get hurt. Safety culture has been described as the collective values and attitudes of the people in the organisation. The unsafe behaviour of an individual is often the final act in an incident sequence; it will have been influenced by the job and organisation. Safety incidents often occur because the behaviours producing the problem are being reinforced – for example, by incentives for productivity, regardless  of safety. Managers and supervisors will only change the behaviours of others by demonstrating their commitment to  improving safety.

Typically unsafe behaviour takes two forms: making a mistake or breaking rules (violations). People often focus on the  violations made in an incident, but evidence shows that 80 per cent of incidents are caused by mistakes – doing the wrong thing at the wrong time or forgetting to follow one in a series of steps. The fact is that we all make mistakes. But in a high risk job, such as working with high voltages or at height, one mistake can be your last. This is why health and safety systems must not only consider the physical aspects of a task, but also the behavioural possibilities. It is critical to build in safeguards to alleviate any pressure to take short cuts, and prevent against a lapse of concentration.

Unless we experience a safety incident, we typically believe it cannot happen to us.  We also believe that experience and training makes us safe. But the evidence says something else. Often it is the most experienced and well trained people who have fatal or serious injury incidents. They can become too familiar with the task and the risks, and take short cuts. And so it is with this in mind that ABB has produced global programmes addressing its key OHS risks, eg project safety and working with high voltage systems; the rules established are non-negotiable and apply to all workers, including contractors.

One of the key requirements for all senior managers is to conduct safety observation tours. The programme is designed to help managers demonstrate their commitment to safety in an active and visible way. The intent is not to make them safety inspectors, but to spend scheduled time with employees and contractors talking about safety, focusing on areas for improvement, and rewarding safe behaviours.  Safety tours help us focus on the human factors in safety. Evidence shows that unsafe behaviours play a major role in incidents at work – by some estimates, causing up to 80 per cent of them. It is not enough to invest in systems and hardware alone, but we also need to maintain our focus on behaviour.

In Australia, a comprehensive contractor management database has been established to help manage the contractors engaged by ABB. Details about workers? compensation and public liability insurance is captured in the database, as well as pre-qualification assessments and ongoing performance audits. The contractor database is linked to payroll and the absence of critical information in the database results in contractors being put ?on hold payment? meaning they do not get paid until the database is adequately populated with information relating to OHS. This database has helped drive change in relation to the way ABB manages contractors, as well as demonstrating to contracting companies that we take OHS seriously.

For all lost time, high potential and serious injuries that occur in ABB, a safety alert is developed outlining the incident details, contributing factors and action required to prevent a recurrence. These safety alerts are distributed throughout the organisation and local management is responsible for communicating the details of these alerts with all personnel under their control. This is generally done at a toolbox meeting or team meeting fortnightly or monthly and these forums involve any labour hire  personnel of contractors working with ABB at the time. This is one mechanism we use to communicate the learnings of incidents to our workforce, with the aim of reducing incidents and improving general hazard awareness.

Despite excellent OHS systems, good inductions, management commitment and improving leadership among our front line managers, the engagement of labour hire personnel and contractors still poses a significant challenge for ABB. It is clear that we need to remain diligent in relation to protecting and managing our contracted employees and labour hire workers so that we can achieve our goal, that is, to ?stop hurting people?.

Gavin Kenny is the Country OHS Advisor for ABB Australia. This article is based on his presentation to the Safety in Action 2009 conference, held at the Melbourne Convention Centre from 31 March to 2 April, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Send this to a friend