• Gary Clarkson

“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”- JRR Tolkien

In a similar vein to my last blog, I want to talk to you about planning , sharing information, managing contractors and the consequences if you don't.

So grab a cuppa, its quite a long post this one.

As Rabbie Burns said when talking to a mouse;

“The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley. An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, For promis'd joy!”

Translated as:

Sometimes stuff happens, things go wrong and people get hurt.

More often than not we get away with an “oh sh*t” moment, or as us health and safety nerds like to call it a near miss.

Sometimes we don’t get away with it, and sometimes people receive life changing injuries as a result.

Injuries which could have been prevented had someone given a little bit of thought up front and followed some simple processes.

Let me tell you a story.

A client engaged a Project Manager to engage a main contractor (and sub-contractors) to undertake the upgrade of an area of their operation.

In order to proceed, the area had to have some specialist equipment taken out.

Equipment which if not handled correctly had the potential to cause serious threat to life and limb due to heaps of stored kinetic energy.

The main contractor engaged a sub-contractor who had no real understanding of the physical operation of the equipment.


We have a contractor removing a piece of equipment, of which they had no practical knowledge, and which had stored energy capable of causing significant harm.

It couldn’t get any worse……or could it?

The client had information on the equipment (the equipment’s installation handbook) which could have given critical information to the people removing it to control the stored energy.

They did not to pass this information to the Project Manager, the main contractor or the sub-contractor.


The sub-contractor doing the work provided the all too common generic task analysis, which fell well short of what was appropriate and did not determine how the job would be done.

The main contractor, project manager and client accepted this as sufficient and authorised the work to proceed.

The perfect storm of ;

  • Unqualified people working on a machine they knew nothing about, and

  • with no information to control the danger it held; and,

  • nobody in a position of authority taking any responsibility for ensuring that people were kept safe.

The end result of all of this was an honest hardworking good kiwi bloke ended up being left with a life changing injury. The impact on him and his family has been devastating.

Sounds made up doesn’t it ?

Well........I have just returned from the sentencing hearing at the Dunedin court this afternoon and sadly it really did happen.

So what can we learn from this terrible event and what do we need to do to stop it happening to us?

Sharing is caring

Knowledge sharing - It's simple and effective

Giving the people doing the job as much information as you can, as early as you can, is fundamental to safe outcomes.

At tender stage, include handbooks, manuals, technical information or safety information will help to ensure that not only do you get a more accurate tender price (they know what they are dealing with), but it also ensures that the people doing the job have the data they need to make good, safe decisions.

Selecting the right people for the job

So much emphasis is put on pre-qualification of contractors, but that is only 1 part of this critical step.

Yes, you do need to know that the organisation you are using has safety systems, training and knowledge of the work, but what about the people who are actually working on your job?

Are they competent?

Have they done this work before and understand the risks?

As the person engaging them as client or main contractor, it’s your responsibility to check that the correct people are involved.

Ask for training records, details of similar work they have done - It might seem like a hassle, but if the people doing the work want your business they will give you what you need and you can have the confidence that the right people were what you needed.

Would you let a dentist repair the brakes on your car?

Measure twice, cut once

Checking that those doing the job have considered things properly is important, particularly where specialist equipment is concerned. Involving those with the necessary expertise to oversee the work is a bonus.

We seem to have a real problem here in New Zealand in getting safe system of work which not only reflect the work that we are doing, but that also detail step by step the tasks involved.

I have lost count of the time I have reviewed a task analysis which neither reflects the tasks or how they will be done.

You don’t need to understand the minutiae of every part of the job (after all that’s why you are paying them), but you should be able to look at the way they are going to do things and determine if the detail is sufficient and doesn’t miss key safety steps.

If it isn't up to scratch, don't be embarrassed to ask for more details. Where safety is concerned, there is no such thing as a dumb question.

Don’t forget you can always engage your friendly neighbourhood 50 something safety guy to help you with these checks.

If you have specialised equipment which presents significant risks, you owe it to yourself and those working on it to get the correct professional advice. If you have in-house people who maintain the equipment, engage them to help you manage the risk.

If not perhaps you need to engage a professional engineer/consultant to get all the facts before you start.

Monitoring the work

Fire and forget doesn’t work when keeping people safe.

We all know that if there is a quicker way to get things done, people will tend to use that instead of the way which we agreed.

You are paying the bill, so why not get out there and check that you are getting what you paid for.

It’s not a breach of trust or anything underhand - it's good business and actually a legal requirement for you to make sure that agreed safe steps are being followed.

And when you do check, keep a note of it.

Whether it’s a formal site inspection document or a note in you diary, it shows evidence that you are discharging your duty, if god forbid something goes wrong.

Making it ok to stop if things don’t feel right

“She’ll be right” – we have all heard it, some of you will have said it.

In most cases she probably will be right. But sometimes she ends up in a world of hurt.

Make it ok for those doing the job to stop if things are not going to plan or if they are not comfortable with the job.

Make it ok to stop unsafe work !

Getting the job done on time and to budget is obviously important, but if you’re reading this, I’m thinking that keeping people from harm is also important to you.

Communicating that it's ok to be cautious to the people who do work can help to prevent unnecessary events, reduce the risk of unforeseen costs if things go wrong and also helps to instil a safer culture on your worksite.

And, if things do over-run, is it really that big a deal ? – yes its inconvenient, yes it might cost a few dollars more.

Just ask the people sitting in the dock today if they would rather someone had delayed work to prevent the terrible event that occurred.

Leaving enough time for the job to be done safely

“It needs to be finished by XX date” or “we can’t have any delays to this” – How many times have you heard / said this?

Make sure your programme has some fat in it.

Rushing is a sure way to find out where the gaps in your systems are.

I have said it before and I shall say it again

"If you can’t find enough time to do it safely, you shouldn't be doing it".

Talk with your suppliers/contractors at tender stage. Get realistic time frames from them and don’t pressure them into fitting into your timeframe if it creates risk.

It’s not rocket science

These are really simple steps which you can take to help better manage the safety of the people in the work that you do.

There is a Maori saying:

He aha te mea nui o te ao

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata

Which translates as

What is the most important thing in the world?

It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.

Shouldn’t this be on our mind when we think about any job we do?

One final thought.

How much do you think it might have cost the defendants to take the steps outlined above?

More or less than the fine they are likely to receive or terrible publicity they now have to answer to ?

Don’t let it be you !

If you would like to discuss the points raised here today or need help to implement the steps I have outlined, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

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