As construction technologies have evolved, so too have the methods or vehicles used for contracting out the building process. The days of the old method - owner hires a design team, puts out a call for bids from General Contractors, they then subcontract the major portions of work, (some subs are good some aren't, but all are the lowest bidder), there's a bevy of changes and additional costs, the building gets built, there are delays, claims, and the general wailing and gnashing of teeth, the owner is relieved that the project is finally done and moves in - are on the decline.
This method sets a "me first" table where all entities are acting in their own best interest. While this promotes the concept of "maximizing shareholder value" for each individual company, it does so in an adversarial environment that doesn't always lead to the smooth completion of the owners' project.
This method sets a "me first" table where all entities are acting in their own best interest. While this promotes the wonderfully capitalistic concept of "maximizing shareholder value" for each individual company, it does so in a somewhat adversarial environment that doesn't always lead to the smooth completion of the owners' project.
Newer contracting methods such as CM, CM-Multi Prime, CM at risk, are now being deployed by owners hoping to gain more control over, and success with, the contracting process. As with most things, each method has its own pros and cons. However, one often over looked aspect is how these methods may affect safety performance on the project.
For those not hip to the lingo, a CM is a Construction Manager. In its simplest and most original form a CM is an extension or agent of the owner working directly on the owner's behalf. The CM is a hired brain trust of construction management skills, providing a relatively unsophisticated owner that wants a building built, with the knowledge and experience of a builder. For a fee, the owner teams with the CM to manage the design process, get bids, hire a General Contractor, manage the owner's interest throughout the build (i.e. change orders, RFI's etc.), pay the bills, and deliver a completed project without the owner getting screwed. The CM's and owners' interests are seemingly aligned at least with regards to the completed project.
Sounds simple enough, and in this form, it really is. However, in the quest to do more with less, variations on this theme have arisen, and with variations come some complications and unintended consequences.
CM Multi-Prime for example, eliminates the General Contractor (GC) and makes each specialty contractor a "Prime" contractor with a strict limit on scope and responsibilities. These scopes are matched to the specialty's contractors specific trade and license. The project is then made up of a couple dozen (or more) "Prime" contractors.
In this scenario, there is no GC to provide coordination, or to step in and fill any gaps in the scopes of work not assigned to any of the Multi-Primes, (who is going to build the handrails?) which often occurs. In theory (and sometimes in practice) the CM handles this coordination/oversight function, but seldom has any direct labor and is generally not equipped to deal with onsite issues needing it. With this method the CM's and owners' interests are still aligned. However, an even greater "me first" environment exists between the Primes, as each specialty now has only their own prime contract interests driving their performance.
Throw in a CM "at risk", and the proposition gets even wonkier. Now the CM, instead of just providing the brain trust for the owner, has their own bet on the table, with money to gain or lose depending on how the project goes. This is different from an ordinary CM, who gets a flat fee whether the project comes in on time/budget or not. The CM at risk has financial "skin in the game" and is rewarded to stay below budget and must absorb any cost over-runs, hence the "at-risk" part. This model has almost come full circle as now the CM has its own financial interests competing with the interests of the owner.
Well in a perfect world nothing at all, since every employer has a duty to provide their employees with a safe place to work. So in each model, the actual performance of work is done by an entity (whether a Multi-Prime (MP) or specialty/subcontractor) that is licensed in that particular trade, and has the specific skill, knowledge, experience, (and duty) to safely perform that particular scope of work. But alas, we don't live in that perfect world.
Some CM's provide little or no jobsite coordination and may or may not have a superintendent type onsite. GC's, even the paper tiger type (no self-performed work), typically have at least that one role filled. Since every specialty contractor isn't always on top of their game (remember they're all the low bidders), this can impact safety as there are no boots in the dirt (in some cases) to herd all the cats in one direction.
In a GC model, that superintendent type person typically has hands on experience and has participated in typical field operations, thus enabling them to perhaps foresee, or at least react to a safety issue more so than an inexperienced "office manager type" would. On the other side of that, some CM's staff projects much like a GC and take a far more proactive approach to managing the project. This MBWA approach (Management by Walking Around) is sometimes the missing link when things go awry on alternative contract delivery projects.
In order to aid in the onsite management of safety, most contracts of both types provide the "right" to require/access safety programs and records, even providing guidelines and safety requirements that go beyond traditional OSHA regulations and may even provide the right to stop work. These abilities are generally bestowed in both the CM and GC models, and are often a bone of contention in litigation. Typically, these "rights" are also accompanied by language making it clear that these rights are not duties, and do not relieve the individual trades (MP's or subs, with their specialized skill, knowledge and equipment) of their duty to provide a safe workplace for their employees.
While the majority of the projects I have intersected with over my career have been well run, I have certainly seen my share of all types of contracting vehicles fall short in their coordination and management efforts. Since these experiences have happened across the board, one could make the argument that it's the specific personnel or companies involved, not the contracting vehicle that's responsible, and to some extent I would tend to agree. If there's a crappy manager, then the results are pretty much forgone, they're crappy too. This holds true all the way through the front-line supervision and includes the worker level also.
While I haven't kept a tally sheet over all these years, my sense is that I do tend to see more problematic projects in the CM-multi prime and CM at risk models, especially from the job inspection side. These methods tend to set up the "that's not in my contract" response, or "I thought X was going to do that", and any of a thousand other excuses, rather than the direct buy in and onsite execution that is required for a productively safe project.
I also believe that there is a distinction between programs, models, contracting methods etc, and the hands-on execution of safety in the field. I don't believe that any firm can be successful without both. As stated, a poor manager/superintendent can screw up the best program, as well as the opposite, whereas a great manager can hold things together despite a lack of programs or efficient contracting models. While I believe that a safety culture definitely starts at the top, safety execution starts at the front-line worker and their direct supervisor once the culture and programs are established.
For example, its probably not reasonable to expect the CEO of a company headquartered in Denver to prevent a worker from entering a confined space in Toledo, once that worker has been appropriately trained. It would be the responsibility of that trained worker and their direct supervisor, as they have the best (and only) view of the task and hazards at hand. On the flip side, it would be reasonable to expect the CEO to ensure that there was in fact a training program and a system in place to ensure that all affected workers/supervisors have been adequately trained and equipped.
A good example of how contacting methods impact safety would be on a large high-rise that requires a tower crane. There are times when one of the specialty contractors is asked (or requires as part of their bid to maintain control) to provide the hoisting (tower crane) for the project. There are also some situations where the GC or CM provide the hoisting either directly or by contract. There are also situations where both occur and the responsibility for hoisting shifts mid project to the GC/CM, once the specialty contractor is complete.
To complicate this, some GC/CM's (rarely the specialty) also provide (through a variety of mechanisms) the riggers and signal persons that attach the load to the hook and direct the crane. Other times each trade needing to use the crane (almost every sub at some point) is required to provide and (sometimes) certify their own riggers/signalpersons. In some cases, I have seen radios given to each sub to direct the crane, and they are left to their own devices. The guy closest to the hook ends up being the rigger, and the guy with the radio is the signal person, whether either is qualified or not.
The question is, which method is used? How do they interact with the company running the crane? Who is running the crane? If a certification requirement is used, which one? who coordinates and verifies all of this info? and are they qualified to do so? The answers to these questions matter, but who's asking them?!
As you can see, this one, seemly simple issue of hoisting, gets very complex, very fast. There are various agreements, contracts, waivers, favors (there has been many a load hoisted for a case of beer) and other factors playing a role in the safe hoisting efforts on any project. If there are this many dots that need to be correctly aligned and connected on this one issue, imagine all of the other site activities requiring attention, with their dots being connected at the same time.
So when the dots don't line up and there is a safety issue that needs to be addressed, how is that accomplished? Who is responsible? Who is getting paid to do that piece of work? If that entity isn't on site, who is responsible to notify them? What do you do until the issue is addressed and resolved? The choice of one contracting method over another can greatly influence the identification, management methods and results when aligning and connecting these dots.
Being the creative get-er-done folks that construction types are, solutions are sometimes improvised on the fly, or not at all, which unfortunately can lead to injuries and litigation. Every project, as well as every case is different. All have differing facts, sometimes disputed, and generally there are gray areas with respect to knowledge, notification, duties, and affirmative contributions by various parties. In some cases, the contracting mechanism chosen can simplify, or at least define the roles and responsibilities for each entity, along with having a catch-all provision to fill scope gaps that have slipped through the cracks.
For the most part, each method, executed correctly, can provide for the safe completion of work. If faced with alternative contracting methodology, it is important to identify and understand all of the nuances that the particular setup brings. If litigation is involved, it is important to explore the contractual relationships created by these contract vehicles, and their effect on the duties and responsibilities they create.
While there is no magic bullet when it comes to choosing contracting mechanisms, having an understanding of the benefits and potential pitfalls of each, and how that choice may impact safety performance on the project, will benefit the decision-making process, the project, and the safety of the workforce.
Sam Iler, CHST, CSHM has more than 35 years of Construction and Safety industry experience. He is a licensed General Contractor, whose experience ranges from tradesman through owner. He has earned a Business Degree, and holds the professional safety certifications of CHST, CSHM, and former Certified Crane Operator/Examiner and Owner. Mr. Iler's Expert Services include pre-litigation inspections and consultations, case evaluation, assistance in mediation and arbitration, and providing expert analysis for deposition and trial testimony.
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