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Role of the prime contractor explored

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by Peter Caulfield

The role of the prime contractor on multi-employer construction projects is the focus of a new educational offering.
Role of the prime contractor explored

The one-day Prime Course Registration is being offered by the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association and is open to members and the general public.

Topics to be covered include: the duties of the prime contractor and how they fit into those of other workplace parties; application and limitations of responsibilities seen from a compliance perspective; how to meet the test of due diligence; and best practices that will help ensure practical success as a prime contractor on all worksites.

The course is being presented by lawyer Nancy Harwood and safety professional Jeff Lyth.

"The role of prime contractor is complex and critical to the proper and safe functioning of all construction projects," Lyth said.

"Although prime contractors are common on almost all construction projects, even experienced practitioners can find it challenging to consistently fulfill this health and safety role. Although the many obligations of the prime contractor are often difficult to carry out successfully from one project to the next, little guidance about the role has been available."

Lyth said the course is for anybody who co-ordinates the activities of multiple employers on a construction site.

"The current language of the role of the prime contractor in B.C. appeared in  legislation in 1999," he said.

"The legislation is written in a general way and the prime's legal duty with regard to health and safety needs to clarified. There are no published guidelines for prime contractor in B.C."

According to B.C.'s Workers Compensation Act, a prime contractor is responsible for co-ordination of health and safety oversight at multiple-employer workplaces.

The prime must:

Ensure that the activities of employers, workers and other persons at the workplace relating to occupational health and safety are co-ordinated; and

Do everything that is reasonably practicable to establish and maintain a system or process that will ensure compliance with this part and the regulations in respect of the workplace.

"According to the act, the prime must put in place an occupational health and safety system that ensures compliance with the regulations," Lyth said.

"The prime must do enough, but not go so far as to take control of the trades working on the site. It's a balancing act."

There can be only one prime contractor on a building site.

Lyth said the identity of this prime contractor needs to be specified in writing at the start of a project.

"The role of prime usually falls to the general contractor," he said.

"But, if it's not in writing, the role of the prime could be assigned to the project owner."

Lyth said confusion can sometimes arise over the identify of the prime contractor.

"Sometimes tenants move into a project and start making their own improvements," Lyth said.

"Imagine a grocery store moving into the ground floor of a highrise. Who is the prime contractor on the site of the grocery store construction?"

A possible solution in this case is for the grocery store to be designated a separate building site and for a prime contractor to be designated for it.

Harwood said the role of the prime contractor is important and needs to be taken seriously.

"Given that most construction work sites in B.C. at any given time will have more than one employer's workers present, and therefore require a prime contractor, employers need to be aware of when, how and what duties of the prime come into play," she said.

They also need to understand that, as an employer, they may well have the role of the prime but not even know it, if there has been no agreement establishing who the prime will be.

"Employers also should be aware of the possible consequences of the failure as a prime to undertake their role with due diligence," Harwood said.

"Those consequences include: worker exposure to injury and disease; liability under statutory orders and penalties; loss of reputation as reliable general contractor; increased employer assessments due to injuries; and loss of any Certificate of Recognition designation an employer may have."

Harwood is a lawyer and was the director of the Prevention Regulatory Practices department of WorkSafeBC for 14 years.

Lyth has been a safety professional for 20 years.

He joined the BC Construction Safety Alliance in 2010 as in-house safety advisor. The course will be held this fall in four locations: Sept. 22 in Burnaby, Sept. 25 in Victoria, Oct. 21 in Kamloops and Oct. 23 in Prince George.

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