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March 28, 2012

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CDM for small contractors – Health and safety in construction

Deaths+in+ConstructionPaul Fenwick describes some of the characteristics of small contractors, how these can often influence their attitude to health and safety, and the key issues that clients should bear in mind when engaging small supply firms in construction works.

As a consequence of its recent review of the CDM Regulations 2007, the HSE has vowed to give closer scrutiny to the health and safety management arrangements of small contractors and of those clients who engage them.

The CDM Regulations are aimed at improving the overall management and coordination of health, safety and welfare throughout all stages of a construction project, with a view to reducing the large number of serious and fatal accidents in the construction industry.

Under the Regulations, those who are involved in, or commission construction work have statutory duties to: check that those parties they appoint are competent to undertake the proposed work; ensure that working conditions are adequate and safe – both before the work commences on site and throughout the duration of the construction phase; and satisfy themselves that the proposed work is properly planned, coordinated and managed.

The HSE has identified a need to find new ways to help small contractors understand and meet these duties and their wider health and safety obligations in a proportionate way. The regulator’s statistics suggest that a decade ago, 30 per cent of fatalities within the construction industry could be traced back to companies with fewer than 10 employees. By 2010, this figure had risen to 65 per cent.

HSE figures for 2010/11 indicate that the number of construction deaths rose to 50, up from 41 in 2009/10. Coming at a time when the recession has caused construction activity to slump, these figures add to mounting concern that the industry’s safety record is starting to slide.

The Executive’s chief construction inspector Philip White warns that “the majority of deaths continue to be on small construction sites. Big construction companies (members of the UK Contractors’ Group) have shown steady improvements over the last decade and we want to see smaller firms take a similar lead. This is not about money, it’s about mindset – planning jobs properly, thinking before you act, and taking basic steps to protect yourself and your friends.”1

Undoubtedly, there are numerous small contractors who operate in a responsible manner and are acutely aware of their obligations to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and others who may be affected by their acts, or omissions. Nevertheless, there is a number of distinct characteristics that sets small contractors apart from their larger counterparts, and some – if not all – of these may provide an insight into the health and safety culture that exists within certain small companies, and help explain the marked increase in their contribution to the deteriorating industry statistics.

Family ties

Small contractors tend to be family-owned businesses and operate within a specific market sector and geographical area. They may have been trading for a number of generations, and family members may be employed in a variety of roles. For example, the managing director may also be employed as a tradesman, working directly alongside his employees on the construction site, while a close relative may undertake company administrative duties.

Such a scenario may result in the company becoming very insular and blasé in respect to its attitude towards health and safety and risk management. Because the senior management may have had little or no experience of working within a larger organisation, they may be ignorant of their specific role and responsibilities with regard to health and safety, and equally unaware of industry initiatives and best practices.

The company may have been trading for a number of years without implementing a formal health and safety management system, and without a serious incident. Consequently, senior management may have become complacent in its attitude towards risk, adopting a mindset of: “If it ain’t broke, then why fix it?”

Domestic domain

In the main, small contractors tend to be employed by infrequent clients. Moreover, many small contractors have traditionally tended to operate predominantly within the domestic field, with the occasional foray into the commercial sector. As a result, their understanding of the CDM Regulations may be patchy.

According to a study commissioned by the UK Contractors Group (which represents more than 30 of the country’s leading contractors) and undertaken between August and September 2009, private construction is especially sensitive to changes in GDP.2 The sharp slump in private construction seems to have encouraged many small contractors that usually operate in the domestic sector to seek work in sectors in which they have previously not operated. In seeking additional work, some have begun to apply to tender as a principal contractor in their own right. Worryingly, in some instances, they may lack the competence to do so.

Unlike larger firms, small contractors may have one or two experienced site managers, who have a good appreciation and understanding of health and safety management, but such individuals tend to be few and far between in such firms. Moreover, small contractors may not invest in training their site management to the same standard as larger companies. Indeed, relatively few site managers working for small contractors have industry-accredited health and safety qualifications, such as the CITB Site Management Safety Training Scheme.

Small contractors will present their most experienced team when formally tendering for projects. Such personnel may, however, be subject to change when the project begins, with the result that less-experienced personnel may actually manage the works throughout the construction phase. Even those projects on which the most experienced members of the contractor’s management team are employed may also suffer as a result of this shortage of staff who could be considered competent and knowledgable on health and safety matters. Indeed, if the site manager goes on holiday, or is sick during the construction phase, health and safety standards at the site may quickly plummet.

Causal relationships

Generally, small contractors that employ sub-contractors don’t undertake formal pre-qualification checks of the sub-contractor. Relationships between small construction companies and sub-contractors will tend to have developed as a result of historical association, working together on previous projects, or because the sub-contractor provides the contractor with favourable credit terms. Any sub-contractors employed will invariably tend to be of a similar, if not smaller size to that of the contractor itself.

Small contractors may have undergone assessment themselves via a pre-qualification scheme. Such schemes are designed to be proportionate and reduce the administrative and financial burden on clients and contractors alike. They provide a recognised standard of Stage 1 Assessment (in line with Appendix 4 of the CDM Regulations ACoP) of the contractor’s health and safety management systems. Notwithstanding, their true value can only be determined when the contractor actually commences the work on site.

Informal nature

Smaller contractors tend not to be IT or paperwork-driven, so communication is generally informal and verbal. Managers may not have access to a laptop on the site and do not tend to rely on e-mail as a way of communicating with members of the project team.

The type of work that smaller companies are usually involved in also tends to be different to their larger counterparts. Most notably, perhaps, refurbishment projects are usually undertaken by smaller contractors. Such works are inherently hazardous, with the potential to encounter asbestos-containing materials and other hazardous substances, or defective electrical supplies. Works may involve demolition, hot works, or work at height.

All of these activities require a degree of competence, planning, risk assessment and the implementation of safe systems of work, including permit-to-work procedures. Small contractors may lack such fundamentals as providing asbestos awareness training for their site operatives, a situation recognised by the HSE with its revived Hidden Killer campaign and recent promotion of free asbestos awareness training.5

Where small contractors do carry out a site health and safety induction, this process may not be formalised. The induction may not be scripted but, rather, delivered in an ‘off-the-cuff’ fashion by the site manager and regarded by the contractor as a ‘tick-box’ exercise. Those site rules and inductions that are scripted may have been inherited by the contractor from a previous project and, as a result, may not cover specific issues pertaining to the current project, or site.

Using consultants

Most small contractors will outsource their competent health and safety advice, rather than employ this function in-house. External consultants may undertake periodic site monitoring, or produce a range of documentation on behalf of the contractor.

In many instances, the quality, relevance, accuracy and impartiality of these processes are questionable. The contractor may commission the external consultant simply to provide the necessary documentation to get them through a series of hoops – for example, to gain pre-qualification accreditation, or so they can start work on site.

Such paperwork, when it has ultimately served its purpose, will then be left on a shelf to gather dust, rather than be used as part of the contractor’s routine arrangements for managing construction health and safety on their site.

The precision of site health and safety inspections undertaken by external consultants employed by the contractor may also be questionable. In some instances, a site ‘inspection’ may comprise little more than the consultant completing a simple checklist from the relative comfort of the site manager’s office.

The results of the site monitoring may not be wholly impartial either, failing to paint a true picture of the effectiveness of the contractor’s on-site management arrangements. Issues such as site housekeeping may have been recorded as ‘acceptable’, when, in reality, the site may be strewn with debris, creating a high potential for slips and trips.

Money talks

Regardless of the economic situation, smaller contractors have always been greatly influenced by cost. Profit margins after overheads for small construction contractors may be as low as 1 per cent. Thus, for a project with a 10-week construction phase and a construction value of £100,000, the contractor’s profit would be £1000. Small wonder, therefore, that contractors scrutinise project expenditure closely.

Small contractors cannot exert major procurement power. Operating from a single office location within a defined geographical area means they cannot command the same supplier discounts as their larger peers. The net result is that site health and safety is often compromised. For example, to reduce costs to the lowest level possible specialised access solutions, such as MEWPs, may be discounted in favour of carrying out work from free-standing ladders.

Choose wisely – the pitfalls to avoid

When considering engaging a new contractor, clients will need to make a judgement, proportionate to the nature of the project and the risks that the work will entail. A competent construction safety practitioner can assist them in meeting their statutory duty.

Stage 2 assessments are essential to identify whether contractors are actually implementing their documented health and safety management arrangements on site. References obtained from former clients, quantity surveyors, CDM coordinators and other parties, who may have worked on projects with the contractor, should help confirm the contractor’s attitude to health and safety management, as well as other issues, such as quality of service and cost.

Interviewing the contractor’s site management team, rather than just the senior management, may also prove beneficial. This will help establish the individual site manager’s understanding of their role and responsibilities in respect of meeting the requirements of the CDM Regulations and other legislation, as well as their experience of working within a particular sector.

Requesting copies of individual training records, Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) cards, Construction Plant Competence Scheme (CPCS) cards, and a company training matrix should help identify levels of individual competence – both within the company itself and of the external sources it relies on, as well as the resources available to the contractor. Asking for verification of any external consultants’ professional qualifications is also a sensible idea.

Clients should request copies of any public liability or professional indemnity insurance certificates from the contractor, to ensure that: they are valid; the level of cover is adequate; and the contractor is covered to undertake the works for which they have been engaged.

Perhaps the most unequivocal method of assessing the implementation of any prospective contractor’s health and safety management arrangements is to actually visit one of their live sites. Their performance can be immediately judged in respect of issues such as site housekeeping standards, the provision of welfare facilities, risk management, and adequate protection to prevent unauthorised persons accessing the site.

With regard to complex projects, or where high-risk activities have been identified, clients should also consider appointing their own competent construction safety advisor, who should be responsible for undertaking periodic site health and safety inspections. While not intended to supplant the contractor’s duty to manage health and safety on their site, these additional independent inspections will not only complement those of the contractor’s external consultant but also verify their impartiality.

Ultimately, if the client’s judgement is reasonable and clearly based on the evidence requested and provided by the contractor, they should not be criticised by the HSE if such arrangements subsequently prove inadequate, or if the company that has made the arrangements fails to implement them properly without the client’s knowledge.


1    HSE press release, 28 June 2011, ‘New figures published of fatally-injured construction workers’ –
2   LEK Consulting (2009): ‘Construction in the UK Economy. The Benefits of Investment’, a study commissioned by the UK Contractors Group
Paul Fenwick is a senior CDM coordinator with Davis Langdon Health & Safety Services.

For more on CDM visit SHP Online’s CDM hub for everything CDM related.

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12 years ago

I worked for a company that employed about 40 people. I was employed has a health and safety manager. one of the directors refused to follow the rules I was laying down. including basics such as signing in and out for fire records.
The director has asked me to back date site visit records, even though I have not been to that site. I was then threatened with losing my job if I didnt. I still do not fill them in.
I have worked for bigger companies.
They are all the same. Its cost and ease of job.

12 years ago

Mr Fenwick – face the facts!
Numerous ‘small’ contractors are employed by the so-called majors.
Majors who in many instances, place priority on programs
‘Safety, is paramount, provided it does not compromise that programme
As for the ‘domestics’, when did you last employ a contractor to carry out house repairs/decoration and what was the influence of time and price on your decision?
You article is self-indulgent