Preparing for Emergencies:
Are Your Contractors as Safe as Your Employees?

How to protect your contractors as effectively as your own employees

Written by Anne-Sophie Tétreault, Eng. at Cognibox

Even with the best prevention measures, an emergency will arise.  The construction site tends to be amongst the most dangerous work environments with many factors to consider, which means that it is often not a matter of ‘if’ there will be an emergency situation, but ‘when’.  In an emergency, the number one priority will be to ensure the safety of all personnel present onsite.

The many scenarios that cover any potential emergencies that may occur at your site have been written, your employees have been trained on them, you have clearly defined who actively participates in the confinement of the source of the emergency versus those that need to evacuate or get shelter, and your existing organizational structure or plant layout makes it relatively easy to count if all employees are accounted for.   With practice – even though the emergency response never unfolds exactly as per the plan – your response is improving with each and every simulation; because practice makes better.

But can the same be said of the other people on site who are not your employees?

Contractor workers are at as much as risk as your own employees in a crisis, but are arguably less prepared to face an emergency at your facility.

Two contractor types

We are looking at two types of contractors: 

  • Those that were present on your site during an emergency, performing contractual work in progress. 
  • Those that your organization called for help at the scene of the emergency in order to contain it and then provide temporary fixes until permanent reconstruction/repairs could happen.

Because they can be directly ‘caught’ up in the emergency, you will need to make sure that the first type of contractor worker is aware of what types of emergencies can arise, what emergency response is expected of them, and how you are going to account for all of them during an emergency.

For an emergency that involves a person being injured, you follow the regulations that centre on the minimum number of first-aiders.  But among the contractor workers, are you absolutely sure that any of them has the valid required training?   And does the contractor know how to get help from that facilities around them when just a call to 911 may not be enough to get paramedic to the right place within a large and complex space?

For those emergencies that require an evacuation, will it be simple for you to know exactly which workers are present, to know exactly where they are working in your facility, and to know who will ensure that they are all accounted for?

In the case of contractors that you call for immediate help in containing an emergency or to temporarily fix any damaged equipment/infrastructure of your plant, you will not need to worry as much about these points.  But – since a emergencies happen infrequently – you may not have too much knowledge about which contractor is available to come on short notice on a week-end.  Or you may not know if this contractor is not only available, but also has a sound HSE record so that he will not become the source of more trouble through unsafe or environmentally doubtful practices?

Contractor management processes

For both types of contactors, the key is not to wait until the last minute to figure out how to answer these questions.
Instead, the way to go about it is to use known and existing contactor management processes and apply them with a special focus on their use for emergency response.

Prequalification – You can use the prequalification process in order to receive commitment from a contractor that they will not only implement your OHS programs, but they will also read and disseminate your emergency response scenarios to their workers.  When doing their regular toolbox meetings, they could pick up your emergency response plans and select whichever scenario is most probable in the specific areas they are working in (or one that they might create, such as a natural gas leak if they are excavating a courtyard) and then review it.

For contractors that are called in to mitigate or clean up an emergency, the prequalification will serve to investigate and confirm – in calm times when there is no panic – that indeed it has the track record and the processes in order to safely execute the job.  It is definitely not the best time to perform any behavioural safety observations on your contractor workers as they are getting your company out of trouble and carrying out emergency containment procedures, nor is it the right time to search online whether or not the contractor is in good standing with the worker compensation board – or has a series of infractions with the Ministry of the Environment – at the precise moment they are needed.

Workers competencies – Having at your fingertips the ability to check that the minimum number of your contract workers have first aid courses, or that those performing hot work have had training on how to effectively use a fire extinguisher, is not only reassuring, it will also influence your contractors to deliver this training and keep it up to date.

Also, because your own production process may be the source of the emergencies, you will need to inform the contractors’ workers that there is the potential that they may be trapped in an emergency quite unfamiliar to them.  Imagine contract workers present on your site during a toxic gas leak, where evacuating in a certain direction is crucial to saving their lives, or when staying onsite to look for shelter may be counterintuitive… but still safer than trying to get to the outside gate of your facility.  

Your organization has the responsibility to ensure that all contract workers know about any possible emergencies that may occur at your facilities.  Presenting this information at safety orientation training sessions can be the right moment to do it, but not if you are equipped with an outdated PowerPoint presentation and an exam that has been photocopied and passed along from one generation of contractors to the next.  Converting your PowerPoint to an attention-grabbing 3D simulation, tempo-ed with sounds, exercises, and randomly selected exam questions is a much more effective way to share any pertinent safety information.

Accounting for who is on site – Contractors will most likely sign a visitor/contractor registry as they enter your facility.  But have you ever stopped to try and decipher those hand-written names, the companies they work for, and – in a large facility – then try to guess where everyone on a given day is performing his or her task?  Now imagine doing this during the chaos of a major emergency at your site.  There is no doubt that the completeness and accuracy of your contract’ workers list will not be at 100 per cent.  This could result in there being a worker out there who could be in trouble, and no one will know to look for them… or even where.  

To avoid this scenario, the contract workers’ sign-in sheet at the gate might be replaced by a system in which each job contracted out is clearly defined with a start and end date, with identified workers who have the training and professional qualifications to do it, including successfully passing your own safety induction emergency response procedures.  This is the plan, and to ensure that it is followed by the contractor, your gate control system can be linked to your contractor management system to help ensure that the gate is opened only to those workers who meet that plan, or those workers who have valid proof of any required training and are also working for a contractor which is qualified by your organization.

The reconciliation of which workers have positively entered on your site on a given day and those at the various muster points following an emergency then becomes much simpler.  Not only do you have a legible list of names of the workers and their employers, but you also have their pictures and you can be reassured that that these workers have been informed about any potential emergencies and the emergency procedures they ought to follow.  This could ensure that you would not receive any nasty surprises during an emergency, because the gate would have only opened to those who were fully qualified.  

Keeping everyone safe

Ultimately – in order to keep everyone safe during an emergency – there is not much difference in what to do for one of your contractors’ workers versus your own employees; but just exactly how to keep your contractors’ workers safe needs to be adapted to meet their specific context.   The challenge will is greater because they are less familiar with your facilities, processes, materials, they do not get as much practice on how to react to an emergency, and you do not have direct control over their ins and outs.  And for emergency aftermath contractors, you do not have the chance to provide toolbox safety talks before their job starts.

This is why over the last few years, many construction sites have retired their paper sign-in registries, safety induction Power Points presentations, and DVDs in favour of using more integrated digital contractor management systems.  


About this Author

Anne-Sophie Tétreault has been with Cognibox since 2016.  Anne-Sophie is a chemical engineer and Lean Master, with more than 30 years’ experience;10 of which in project engineering and ISO standards and compliance auditing for Molson-Coors and the registrar QMI-CSA, and 20 working with integrated management systems for VIA Rail, Bombardier Transportation, Air Liquide Canada, and Voith Hydro.   She had the privilege of training with the Emergency Response team of Molson-Coors, organizing and performing the simulation exercises of the ER Team and the local municipal HazMat Team for their preparedness and response to ammonia leaks and chemical spills.

Anne-Sophie’s expertise is in developing, maintaining, digitizing, and improving integrated Health, Safety, Security, Environment and Quality (HSSEQ) systems, using Lean/6 Sigma techniques and a thorough knowledge of management system standards, coupled with her hands-on engineering/construction experience.