Responsibility of Principal Contractors

January 21, 2015


Should or shouldn’t principal contractors take responsibility of their sub-contractors?

I have worked professionally in Ireland, USA, UK and Australia and the debate over whether or not principal contractors should take responsibility for their chosen sub-contractors has raged on wherever I went.

I attended a Safety Institute of Australia forum at RMIT university campus in Melbourne at the end of last year where the topic of principal contractor responsibility was on the discussion agenda.

Barry Sherriff, OHS lawyer and partner at Norton Rose Fulbright spoke briefly with regards to principal contractors perceived onus that they must supervise sub-contractors “just because you can supervise doesn’t mean you have too….., you are allowed to rely on that contractor to work safely according to recent court decisions in WA and VIC”

It was apparent to me when listening to Barry and the other guest speakers on the day that the interpretation around whether or not principal contractors are responsible for supervising their sub-contractors has shifted to the side of the principals being allowed to rely on their sub-contractors.

So how do you rely on a sub-contractor? A principal contractor can start by ensuring their chosen sub-contractor can provide:

  • Detailed, specific and accurate Safe Work Method Statements for high risk work tasks.
  • Ensuring the SWMS are reviewed when substantial changes to work practices occur.

Also, honestly consider questions like:

  • Are they up to it?
  • Can they develop safe systems of work?
  • Can they implement the safe systems of work?

If not the responsibility must be removed from them as if the principal contractor dives in to take charge mid-way through contracts the principle contractor must wear it in the event of things going south.

One thing that can be established is that sub-contractors are going to need to get on board the OHS management train if they want to be considered as serious contenders for standalone work packages in the coming future.

Posted By: Cathal Uniacke –

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