Industry Special: Clarifying the workplace safety responsibilities of prime contractors during COVID-19

Journal of Commerce | WorkSafeBC | April 30, 2021

The construction industry’s collaborative response in helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19 shows the power of community, while raising important questions about the roles and responsibilities of prime contractors and subcontractors in multi-employer workplaces.

“If you’re wondering who’s responsible, it’s you,” says Andrew Kidd, a WorkSafeBC Prevention Field Services manager who is raising awareness of the need for prime contractors and subcontractors to align their workplace safety plans.

In multiple-employer workplaces, workers from different employers may work in the same area, or their work may overlap on various construction projects. This overlap can create hazards that may pose a risk of injury to everyone at the workplace.

Prime contractors need to ensure that all subcontractors, employers, and workers are coordinating their activities. They also need to confirm that subcontractors have their own safety plans, follow regulations, and bring safe operations to their worksites. During the pandemic, this includes reviewing subcontractors’ COVID-19 Safety Plans.

All employers in B.C. are required to develop a COVID-19 Safety Plan. For multi-employer workplaces, each employer must develop their own safety plan and provide a copy to the prime contractor. The prime contractor must also have a separate safety plan and must ensure that all subcontractors’ safety plans are in alignment with theirs.

In addition to controlling risks related to COVID-19, it’s essential to identify all workplace hazards, assess the risks associated with those hazards, and ensure risks are adequately controlled for all those present at the workplace.

“It’s making sure the employer is coming to the worksite with a COVID-19 Safety plan and that they’re in compliance with those regulations, and making sure that their plan is coordinated with everyone else’s,” Andrew says. “But COVID-19 is only one hazard. It’s very much up front and deserves our attention, but the other hazards haven’t gone away.”

Applying the COVID-19 safety approach to other workplace hazards

Prime contractors still need to assess long-standing hazards associated with mobile equipment, demolition, excavation, abatement, high-voltage, hazardous materials, and many other long-standing safety issues. They need to keep working to minimize workers’ risks of falls from elevation, struck by injuries, and MSIs.

“We are reminding employers and workers that the attention you’ve put toward your COVID-19 safety plan is the same level of attention and importance you should be applying to other workplace hazards,” says Jaret Swanson, WorkSafeBC’s construction manager in OHS Consultation & Education Services. “You’ve got to be vigilant with your maintenance records, your fall protection, your excavations, and all the other high-risk situations — designated or not — that become commonplace in construction.”

Jaret praises industry leaders for pooling resources and putting together safety protocols based on their own risk assessments.

“It’s been a collaborative effort — a community approach, no doubt about it,” Jaret says. “Prime contractors need to adopt that approach to all workplace issues that are clearly systemic in construction — whether it’s fall protection, MSIs, struck by, or high voltage. It’s still the prime contractor’s responsibility to ensure there’s alignment with all subcontractors coming onsite.”

For more information read the new resource “Frequently asked questions: COVID-19 and responsibilities of prime contractors on construction sites

By Carol-Anne Boufford, Manager Prevention Field Services, WorkSafeBC.

This content is an Industry Special by WorkSafeBC in collaboration with ConstructConnect Media. To learn more about WorkSafeBC, visit worksafebc.com.