Health and Safety Subcontracting Problems Revealed by IOSH

Colin Pilbeam

OUTSOURCING CAN LEAD to significant health and safety tensions between contractors and subcontractors according to a new study funded by IOSH.

The study by Cranfield University looked at relationships between client firms and the main sub-contractor and the impact on health and safety.

Challenges for maintaining occupational safety and health standards when outsourcing included tensions between organisations and varying regulations across countries.

The research also found limited reviewing of safety performance during and after contracts were signed in outsourced relationships – which acted as a barrier to improvements in safety performance.

Dr Colin Pilbeam, Reader in Safety Leadership at Cranfield University, said: “Outsourcing is a significant and increasingly common organizational change initiative of the modern era, occurring not only in private companies but also in public sector organisations across the globe. However, outsourcing can also introduce safety risks into an organisation.

“This research, funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, highlights some of the safety challenges involved in outsourcing relationships and shows many industries manage safety through a common set of practices.

“While this can establish an acceptable level of safety performance, there can be issues around execution in organisations. More needs to be done to understand how safety can be managed in outsourced relationships between organisations.”

Significant problems

Some of the major challenges highlighted in interviews with employees of contractors and subcontractors included:

  • Outsourcing to another company where there are different expectations of what is covered by safety monitoring , e.g. near misses and safety-related incidents.
  • Tensions at board level can adversely affect otherwise friendly and effective relationships on the ground. On the other hand, good relationships at board level aren’t able to affect bad relationships on the ground.
  • Hard fought negotiations over the contract can negatively affect resource availability and in turn safety performance.
  • Companies can make up for a safety dip at the beginning of an outsourcing relationship transferring staff from the old to the new provider. However doing this can put the brakes on new ideas and improvements in safety performance.

Mary Ogungbeje, Research Manager at IOSH, said: “Employers can’t abdicate their health and safety responsibilities just by having a contractor in place to do the job.

“History has shown us that health and safety disasters happen when contractor arrangements are not managed properly. So, whilst each context may be different, this study usefully reveals some common set of practices in outsourcing relationships, that can help employers to minimise the safety risks. The specific case studies also highlight some learning opportunities for businesses to consider.”

The research report, ‘Managing safety following organisational change through outsourcing: Dysfunctional processes and fractured relationships’ is available on request by emailing



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