The role of the contractor is changing significantly as more work is contracted out.
Whether that is done through a contract farming agreement or on an ad-hoc basis, farmers remain responsible for providing a safe working environment for their contractors.
Problems could arise when there are accidents on the farm due to the likes of improperly trained staff brought in by the contractor, faulty equipment or work carried out in a reckless manner without any regulation.
For example, a contractor’s tractor driver rushing to finish harvest, working 18-20 hour shifts that are not properly managed.
The risks that contractors potentially bring to the farm are increasing, as are the costs of getting it wrong.
Claims in relation to public liability are escalating rapidly and often run into millions of pounds. The outcome can be terminal for the business – particularly where insurance cover is inadequate or where insurance premiums rocket after a serious incident.
These potential costs can be managed and often reduced where good safety management systems are in place, are actively managed and can be proven to be so.
Putting these controls into place should be an integral part of protecting the farm as an asset as well as shielding the family’s personal liability in relation to prosecution, fines and claims that may arise from that.
Blurred lines of responsibility
There is a widely held view that by using a contractor the farmer is outsourcing the risks associated with that work as well as the work itself. This is not the case.
The farmer, as the owner or occupier of the land, is responsible for ensuring that a safe working environment is provided for contractors. Contractors, too, have similar responsibilities – to the farmer and to their staff – but the boundary between these areas is often blurred.
For the farmer, it’s absolutely vital that evidence exists that the health and safety policy is tailored to the business.
It is also vital that it is regularly reviewed and part of a system that includes risk assessments, training records, maintenance records and evidence of regular review. Having that in place allows the farmer to assess health and safety competence of the contractor with the confidence that their own house is in order.
Many relationships with contractors are long-standing and, as many contractors are also farmers, based on mutual experience.
The relationships are often close-working, with regular contact and with the contractor and their staff operating as part of the farm team. This fosters an environment where seeking evidence of compliance can be more difficult.
It’s possibly embarrassing or implies criticism of a close trading partner to ask, for example, for copies of their health and safety policy or risk assessments.
- The cost of settling public liability claims is rising and can exceed £5m
- The farmer remains largely responsible for the safety of contractors working on site
- It’s essential to gather evidence that contractors are managing safety – verbal assurances are not enough
- Effective contractor management should be part of farm risk management systems
In relation to assessing your contractor’s compliance, all relationships must be kept at arm’s length and a formal assessment of a contractor’s safety compliance must be made.
It’s not enough to rely upon a verbal assurance that something has been done. Where appropriate you must request and receive copies of key documentation such as the health and safety policy, a copy of liability insurance, risk assessments and qualifications.
That administration process can be simplified but it’s important that you gather the relevant information and request updates when, for example, insurance certificates expire or operator training needs refreshing.
By asking contractors to confirm that their staff are trained, it makes them check, for example, the frequency of refresher training.
It ensures that people are well informed and that awareness of safety is regularly raised. It could also make a huge difference to your ability to manage the aftermath of a serious incident, how stressful or otherwise it becomes, how the costs affect you and potentially on your ability to keep trading.
It’s an unpleasant subject to have to address but the fact is that the cost of settling a public liability claim is, on average, rising. Where life-changing injuries have occurred and the liability rests with you, the costs can run into millions of pounds.
We are likely to see these costs escalate further as advances in medical technology allow more to be done to aid long-term recovery. The costs of assisting that recovery are always factored into the value of any settlement.
Where should the management of health and safety sit on your list of priorities? That’s a very personal decision, although it’s worth remembering that you are dealing with an area of criminal law that could, if not properly managed, see you in the worst-case scenario serving a prison sentence.
Managing the implications of that and of the fines that arise, may require you to negotiate a claim scenario that could stretch your insurance cover and see you dealing with the cost implications for many years to come.