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How to begin shifting your mindset from contractor prequalification to Partner Elevation

As general contractors adopt complex projects on increasingly tighter schedules, the old methods of approaching safety must be re-examined. Using a contractor selection process supported by traditional prequalification software and archaic frameworks will continue to produce the same issues over and over again:  a surface-level understanding of risk and the lack of ability to address it.

Partner Elevation is a process and a framework built for this new era of capital projects. It’s centered around treating your contractors like strategic partners and coaching them throughout every step of your engagement to improve their safety posture. It’s about elevating your partners by genuinely improving their safety practices over the long term.  

Adopting a new framework for how you work with your contracting partners may sound daunting, but you can implement it one step at a time — let’s walk through the most important first steps for implementing a partner elevation framework.

Shift your mindset

Partner Elevation begins with embracing a mindset shift: Don’t qualify contractors; instead, elevate partners. While this may be obvious to you, keep in mind that others in your organization may need help understanding the benefits of this shift in mindset. That’s why the first step in your process to adopt Partner Elevation requires bringing your team together. 

First, openly discuss this shift in mindset with your staff, affirming why it is essential. Your team will have questions, they’ll want to understand how you came to this conclusion, and they’ll want to understand “What’s in it for me?”  

Explain how the focus of each individual role will evolve positively as you adopt the framework. For example, your safety team will take a hands-on approach at every stage of a project, turning them from safety cops to safety mentors. Your legal team won’t solely focus on litigation, instead, they’ll turn a portion of their focus towards risk mitigation. Your safety coordinators will shift from just inspecting partners to actively engaging them and assisting them to follow the risk mitigation plan.  

Make sure to have individual follow-up conversations to address any concerns your team has and use those opportunities to reinforce all of the benefits of partner elevation. Partner Elevation will enrich their careers, align them to a meaningful purpose of keeping partners safe, and bestow even greater responsibilities on them. Take the time to talk them through this. 

Rethink partner prequalification

Partner Elevation treats prequalification as an assessment to educate you on areas of risk, rather than a pass/fail proposition. It allows you to go into the partner selection process with more information than ever before.    

First, you’ll partner closely with the Highwire Contracting Partner Enablement team to work with your prospective contracting partners on enrollment. Each contracting partner will upload detailed safety and financial information used to analyze their risk level and this process will generate a risk score along with a detailed analysis of any problem area you should know about.  

Once you have the scores for each partner, here are the steps your EHS Director will take to start treating prequalification as an assessment:

Note the areas of strength and weakness identified by the score and remember that the score is made up of a combination of lagging and leading indicators. There will be safety flags signaling any issues that need your attention. All of this should feed into the overall assessment of partner fit.  

It’s important to not overweigh the lagging indicators. Past performance is not a complete determinant of future success and while it helps illustrate how the contractor has performed in the past, it only makes up 45% of the risk score.   

Next, examine the leading indicators that act as predictors of future success. Verify that the contractor has the right systems in place to close any safety gaps. For example, the presence of safety-oriented training programs, Return to Work programs, and special partnerships with OSHA can show that the contractor may align with your safety culture. 

If you decide to move forward with the contracting partner, you’re ready for the next stage: creating a risk-mitigation plan.

Co-design a risk mitigation plan

Taking an active role in designing the risk-mitigation plan is a crucial tenet of Partner Elevation, and it will ensure that you’re actively addressing specific safety gaps. Here are the main steps to take during this stage:

Based on your assessment of the partner, you’ll create a detailed outline that will serve as your agenda when you meet with the partner. You should be prepared to ask critical questions about all of the elements of their risk score that may concern you. Your goal is to understand the nature of past incidents and to evaluate the partner’s ability to conform to stricter systems and processes that will prevent them on your project.

Talk through your culture of safety, expressing how it ties in with your core values. Explain how you will act as a strategic partner to the contractor to help them fully align with this culture.

Ask the partner to create a risk-mitigation plan; it’s important that they take the lead on this and report back to you on what they’ve created. You should take a collaborative role in its development, providing guidance and detailed feedback as they draft the plan. The plan should outline the areas of risk that must be addressed and should provide great detail around the specific protocols that will be followed.

Review the final plan and ask for sign-off from your partner. This is where you’ll specify the inspection process you’ll use to ensure the plan is being followed. Having rich, ongoing conversations about safety will allow you to form a strategic partnership with contractors, serving as a safety mentor. 

Dynamically assess progress

Risk levels change continuously throughout a project’s lifespan, so aim to identify changes in risk right away—ideally in real-time. This is where your safety coordinators will shine. To effectively mentor a partner, they’ll need to show up, coach, and advise on a daily basis. 

What does this entail for your safety coordinators?

First, they should be on-site every day. Make sure they are accessible; becoming a face people know, trust, and appreciate. 

Next, they should be monitoring the work and inspecting the protocols laid out in the risk-mitigation plan, recording results back into Highwire via the mobile app. Machine-learning and predictive analytics will surface emerging trends as they occur so you can pivot and adapt as needed. This changes the game for your safety coordinators, enabling them to do their best work and ensure your culture of safety is being implemented. 

Your safety coordinators should form a partnership with site supervisors starting on the very first day of the project, as this will provide the greatest leverage needed to ensure safety is everyone’s first priority. By being present and keeping everyone aligned to the risk-mitigation plan from day-one, the standards will be clear. Some of the smartest safety coordinators will attend regular meetings with the contractor’s supervisory staff to provide guidance and feedback.

Lastly, they should recognize and praise people when things are going well, reinforcing even small achievements in safety. Far too often, your team will be viewed as a safety cop if they’re only pointing out mistakes and violations – so be sure to take the time to highlight the positives too.  

Start exploring Partner Elevation

Partner Elevation is an extensible, portable, flexible framework that will allow you to work with almost any contracting partner, regardless of their past history. It’s an evolution of most of your existing practices and can be adopted one step at a time.

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David Tibbetts

David Tibbetts is the Chief Safety Officer at Highwire. Prior to joining Highwire David managed the Construction Safety Program at Harvard University overseeing the implementation of the University's Construction EH&S Standard, Substance Abuse Prevention Program, and use of Highwire's Contractor Safety Assessment Program.

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