Ask, Don’t Assume

Why it’s critical to hire safety-certified and insured contractors

When hiring contractors to build your new home or renovate your existing one, should you automatically assume they are safety-certified and insured? The answer is a resounding NO.

There are some situations where safety certification is mandatory in Nova Scotia, such as the case of companies hired for provincial government contracts or of sub contractors working for companies in the industrial and commercial sector, says Damon Alcock, Strategic Services Director for the Nova Scotia Construction Safety Association (NSCSA). But when in comes to contractors working on homes, it is a different story. “There are no such requirements in the homebuilding and renovation industries and it is up to the homeowner to require a company to be safety certified before hiring them,” says Alcock.

No provincial regulations require con- tractors to be insured either, says Robert Cooley, Risk Services Coordinator for Federated Insurance, a company that specializes in covering homebuilders and tradespeople, as well contractors from several other sectors. “When a homeowner is hiring a contractor, whether it is a trades- person, a builder or a renovator, they should be asking them up front, ‘Do you have insur- ance?’” advises Cooley.

The Importance of Safety Certification

“Research has shown that safety certified companies have better health and safety outcomes than non-certified companies,” says Alcock.

Safety-certified contractors have been trained to identify hazards, to anticipate and prevent dangerous situations and about the appropriate protective gear required to protect themselves and everyone who comes in contact with the worksite. They are also qualified and routinely perform hazard assessments. “Prior to any job, safety-certified companies assess the work environment and identify any potential hazards that may harm the workers, or the ho- meowner,” says Alcock. “Proper controls are put in place and the homeowners should be made aware of the hazards and controls. As part of this assessment, homeowners should identify any hazards they are aware of to the contractor as well.”

Alcock notes that homeowners need to be conscious that they share the responsibility of safety. “This means that they not only have a duty to help keep their contrac- tors safe, but could share the responsibility if an injury occurs,” says Alcock. He points out the potential ramifications if a home-owner is held responsible by citing an incident out of British Columbia from July 2011. BC’s former premier, Gordon Campbell, was declared responsible for the death of a contractor who fell through his roof skylight; WorkSafeBC stated Campbell “had or should have had knowledge of, and control over, the particular workplace,” since in this case he was deemed the “primary contractor.” (It is not clear whether he was fined.)

It should be noted that regulations and legal precedents vary by province, but this brings to light the potential for homeowners being held responsible legally or financially for safety concerns, and thus it is best to bring up safety certification, hazard assessments and other relevant topics from the get go.

Alcock notes that it’s also to the benefit of contractors to be safety-certified, as well as for their employers. “For the company, increased injuries mean increased rates they must pay to the Workers’ Compensation Board,” he says. “This reduces their over- all profit and can potentially result in an increase of prices for service.” Alcock adds that contractors that violate Occupational Health & Safety regulations may be fined and it could lead to their workplace being temporarily shut down which slows down home building and renovation projects.

The Importance of Insurance

“It’s very important to hire a contractor that is insured because if there is damage or injury that the contractor is liable for, the homeowner has the peace of mind that the insurance company is going to fix and pay for the damages,” says Cooley. The basic guideline is that the liability insurance be a minimum of $1 million, he says, although Federated recommends more for its con- tractors.

It’s also important for homeowners to discuss their own insurance plans with their personal agents. Even if the potential for damage and injury is minimal, the most ideal situation is that the homeowner is confident with their contractor or contractors’ insurance coverage, as well as their own, when applicable.

Cooley says contractors should also be aware of the consequences if they are not insured. “If somebody gets hurt on the job site or there is a fire, for example, and it comes back that it was the contractor’s responsibility, they’re financially responsible for all this,” says Cooley. He says coverage options offered by Federated, like third-party insurance, can cover potential legal bills as well as awards paid out for damages.

What Should Homeowners Ask for Up Front?

The homeowner should ask prospective contractors for proof of Workers’ Compensa- tion Board (WCB) coverage, liability insurance and a valid certificate of recognition repre- senting they received safety training, such as the program delivered by the NSCSA, says Alcock.

Cooley adds that regarding liability insurance ask to see their certificate of insurance, and check for such information as expiration date, $1 million or more cover- age and the contractor’s correct name and contact information.

The Nova Scotia Home Builders’ Association (NSHBA) recommends taking it a step further in its online article “Get It In Writing: “Having a written contract is essential. It helps protect you from the nightmare of lawsuits that can result from accidents, work-related injuries, or damages to third parties.”The NSHBA states among the items to include in the contract are the certificate of insurance and a letter of clearance from the WCB.

Once proof of WCB coverage, insurance and safety certification are assured, Alcock highly recommends homeowners and contractors meet before work begins. Each should identify potential hazards around the home and what areas and utilities are accessible and off-limits at the end of the work day. Alcock says, “Homeowners should not gamble with the safety of their family or the workers of the companies they hire.”

Michelle Brunet

Michelle Brunet

Michelle Brunet is a freelance writer based in her hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia. She has had the pleasure of contributing to various publications and websites, including Celtic Life International, Halifax Magazine, The Coast, Bedford Magazine, Resources Quarterly, Atlantic Books Today, up! magazine and My Destination Nova Scotia