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Homepage / Outsourcing safety – what’s in a model?

Outsourcing safety – what’s in a model?


Standard construction safety equipment on wooden table. top view

This is the third blog of my series sharing my work on a IOSH funded research project investigating the safety management of contractors. 

Over the last few months we have been wrestling with the questions, “Who is a contractor?” and “How can you distinguish between them?” Obtaining answers to these might help us identify differences in safety management practices. Or so we think!

After a lot of reading we have discovered two important characteristics which seem to be regularly overlooked in any conversation around contractors. First is the contractor a firm or an individual? This is an important distinction. And then is the individual contracted directly to the client or through an agency? Also, does the contractor work on the client’s site or not? These different scenarios would seem to affect how safety might be managed.

Picking up the first characteristic we were delighted (and relieved) to find two existing frameworks that complemented each other. One considered organizations as contractors and the other identified individuals. Fortunately for us, both considered the contribution of the contractor to the strategic goal of the firm as one important dimension. Is the contribution core to the business or peripheral? On the other axis they both considered the complexity of the task. Was it routine? Or was it bespoke and complex?

Plotting what we had read in previous studies on this 2×2 framework seemed to identify some differences. Se we thought we were on to a winner. And then came a discussion with our Advisory Group! Some members loved it. They could see instantly how it would work in their organization, and were all for it. Other members were simply confused. What do the labels mean? What about this and what about that? They went off in endless discussion. And one or two said nothing, but in subsequent email exchanges clearly hated the whole idea.

We hadn’t anticipated that. And it is interesting to reflect on these three different reactions. For the ambivalent we clearly need to package our message more clearly. Work harder on the definitions. I have a presentation at the IOSH conference next month so the next step is obvious. And I am grateful for the prompt. For those in favour it is a useful heuristic device. It is sufficiently structured to differentiate effectively, but sufficiently imprecise to be flexibly interpreted and adopted. This was our intended purpose, although we perhaps need to work on the packaging. Those others who disliked it assumed that we thought the model was the answer to our research. We had arrived at the conclusion to the project without doing any research. By collecting data from companies on the safety management of their different contract relationships, it is a framework we hope to test in the field. Again more work is required on the message.

All of these are useful notes to us on how we present our thoughts to an audience of experienced practitioners. What will people see and hear? How will they respond to it? How might they use it? Plenty for us to work on in the coming months.

Read my previous blog: Ensuring ‘Straw Men’ survive: creating a relevant and rigorous safety research project

Written By: Dr Colin Pilbeam

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