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I have recently called on a company that required assistance with a health and safety file. Upon enquiry I found they run a shuttle service in the transport sector. My first question was why they needed one, and the woman just replied that they “must have it”, almost as if is a religion.

The term “health and safety file” is only used in the Construction Regulations and applied only to construction companies. No other employer needs a health and safety file; period.

It appears that there are people I call “file factories”, who will literally sell a file to anyone ignorant enough and willing to pay for it. I guess, desperate times call for desperate measures, but the ethics behind it, leaves very little room for credibility.

When do you actually need a health and safety file?

A health and safety file is not something that you need to buy from anyone. It is a file or electronic system that you need to keep on site when a construction projects starts, which contains all records that are generated during the construction project pertaining to health and safety and the risks associated with the project. The content should be designed to inform the owner of the building or structure about the safety and health aspects of the building once it is handed over after completion. This would for example include the layout of the fire protection systems, the safe operating procedure of the HVAC system and what competencies would be required, the operating and maintenance of the elevators, the emergency alarm system and escape doors, the location of electrical and water reticulation systems, in walls, floors and ceiling spaces.

In short, the health and safety file is an “owners manual” provided to the owner of the building to ensure it is used and maintained in a safe and health-risk free manner. This will allow the owner to comply with their legal duties once the building or structure has been handed over.

What do I actually need?

The answer to this question depends on who you are in the construction project.

If you are the client; the person for who the work is being done, you do not need a health and safety file. All you need is a baseline risk assessment for the project and a health and safety specification which you must give to the contractors who will be doing the job.

If you are a main contractor or principal contractor, you will need a health and safety plan, which will inform the client on how you plan to manage health and safety to ensure it meets the requirements of the health and safety specification.

If you are a contractor working for the main contractor, you will also need a health & safety plan, which will tell your main contractor how you intend to manage health and safety on site.

How does it all fit together?

First, the contractor must read the health and safety specification, or the part that applies to their scope of work, and develop a health and safety plan. All the contractors does this.

The main contractor then consolidates all the health & safety plans and prepares their own plan, addressing how they will ensure the contractors perform their jobs according to their plans they have submitted.

The client then reviews the health and safety plan of the main contractor and decides which quote or tender to accept, based on the best possible health & safety plan, which must also address the cost aspects of the plan.

Why am I told I need a H&S File if that is not the case?

In my opinion, there could be one of two reasons why people will tell you to buy a health & safety file. The first is that this file could be a complete health and safety program, which you are required to have in place in accordance with the Occupational Health & Safety Act. But you need to be very careful in buying off-the-shelf programs, as not all of them are designed to adapt to your company’s specific hazards and requirements.

The second reason why people will convince you, you need it, is that there are so many “file factories” creating and printing files that the entire practice has become very competitive. There is not enough construction projects to satisfy the financial needs of the “file factories” that they literally lie to employers as to where this is actually required just to make a quick buck. More than often, these files does not even comply with the minimum legal requirements and are filled with content that you could have downloaded from the internet yourself. I would be very cautious to purchase a “ready made” file, unless it is specific for your industry, based on an industry standard.

What is my risk if I buy an H&S File from a File Factory?

Your business could be at huge risk if you buy an H&S File from a File factory which does not address your specific requirements. Here are a few pitfalls to watch out for:

  1. The file may contain a pre-written H&S policy, which may not be specific to how you want to run your business. If you sign this policy, and you operate your business differently than the policy, your policy becomes invalid and in breach of Section 7 of the Act,
  2. The file may contain a number of legal appointments, commonly referred to as Statutory appointments. These appointments must be on a company letterhead, and addressed to a person with specific competence and authority. If you just sign and issue these letters, you can be held liable for anything the appointee fails to do in terms of the appointment.
  3. The file may contain a health & safety plan, which in turn refers to items, plant, equipment etc, which you may not have in your business, and on the flip side, omits to include the stuff you actually do have.

The health and safety file process causes crime

What is the best solution then?

From my 30 years experience, I have learned that the best way to comply with H&S requirements, is to get proper advice from industry leaders. Going the cheap route will cost you dearly in the long run and will only result in you having to repeat the same process over and over, wasting time and money. Get professional advice which should follow this process:

  1. An initial visit to your premises to get an understanding of what you do, how you operate and how many people works for you.
  2. Developing a project plan, to indicate both the cost and time frame to develop and implement a proper H&S system.
  3. Communicating this project plan with relevant stakeholders, which may include the Department of Labour.
  4. Implementing the project plan according to schedule and include the required training for employees involved in the management of the program, such as first-aiders, safety reps and equipment inspectors (where needed).
  5. Monitoring the project and improving, changing and rewriting things that works differently in practice than on paper.
  6. Rudy Maritz discusses the health & safety file syndrome.

    Keep the program relevant to your business strategy; keep it alive.

What do I do with all the files I currently have?

The fact that you have a lot of files should tell you something about their value to the client. The answer is recycle the paper as it is useless information. If your client does not want the files, it means there is nothing in it that is of future use. The Construction Regulations stipulates that the health and safety file must be handed over to the client once the project is completed. Yet, most of the so-called files I have dealt with, contains no information that will help the client to understand the risks associated with the occupancy and future use of the building or structure. You just wasted a lot of money and time. The reason the H&S File is not wanted is that the engineer or architect or project manager compiles a document commonly referred to as an “As built file”. This is what the client wants, and it is also what the Construction regulations requires.

Who can I call for advice?

There are number of good H&S consultants in South Africa. I would suggest looking at their career history and make the decision from there. Ideally, experience in your own industry is preferable, but most consultants have worked across various industries and have gained a more holistic understanding of how things should be done.

You are also welcome to call me on 083 762 8388 for assistance.

What people look for on Google when searching for “I need a safety file”:

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Rudy Maritz

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