7 Tips for Vetting an Outside Contractor

April 29, 2011
Don't be confused by outside contractors.  These valuable pointers help facility managers minimize downtime and maintain safety to improve operations.

At some point, every building must bring in an outside contractor to do specialized work that in-house manpower cannot perform on a cost-effective basis, such as boiler blasting, concrete waterproofing, or ceiling painting.

Such an option makes sense, as many operations do not enjoy the luxury of reassigning staff to do labor-intensive work that requires additional training. Nor does facility management have at its ready disposal the unique equipment required to perform major maintenance or upgrade projects.

The challenge lies not in deciding whether to call in outside help, but in determining which contractor is best able to perform the job on time, within budget, with the best outcome, and with the fewest lapses in safety. With the right selection, an outside contractor can act as an ongoing partner to help facility engineers and managers lower costs and add value over the long run.

1) Use Precise Planning
Downtime for maintenance or upgrades equates to an interruption in revenue stream or business operations. The best way to avoid having any outside work halt the process is to ensure that the contractor provides a highly detailed plan of the project work in advance.

"If a contractor can't tell you how he's going to do that job and lay it out in an organized, detailed, step-by-step fashion, then you shouldn't hire him because he isn't sure of what he's doing," says Michael McMahon, president of Coating Systems, Inc. (CSI), a Georgia-based certified specialty maintenance contractor of industrial painting and protective coating services.

"Put another way, if you can't build it on paper, you can't build it in reality," continues McMahon. "For example, we use critical path method scheduling. It covers the scope of the work, crew, specifications, safety checks, the tasks broken down by each different craft, and a complete timeline from start to finish. Such a project schedule should be provided to the building manager in advance of any work."

2) Hire Credentialed Contractors
As industry and educational requirements have shifted, the pool of skilled craftsmen continues to dwindle. After soliciting requests for quotations, make sure the down-selection process includes a careful evaluation of the contractor's tradesmen.

"The importance of having a job go smoothly rests on the skill of the people actually twisting the wrenches," says McMahon. Recognized training programs can vouch for satisfactory performance levels from a given craftsman. Additionally, most technical disciplines have credentialing bodies that evaluate respective contractors and their employees for competency.

"The Society for Protective Coatings, for example, certifies contractors in key areas such as management procedures, technical ability, and quality control," explains McMahon. "Such certification provides a means to determine whether the painting contractor has the capability to perform surface preparations and coating applications on storage tanks, pipelines, flooring, or process equipment."

Judging work ethic takes more effort. Look for a contractor who features a long-term team of workers vs. hiring a local crew "off the street." Ask the contractor to provide a list of the potential workers and request their job histories. If not available, think twice.

3) Secure the Right Equipment
Don't underestimate how inappropriate or underperforming equipment can greatly increase the time to complete a project. A contractor can actually offer cost savings for building management if he or she possesses equipment selected with forethought and applicability to the specific project.

"When we tackle a critical project, like applying a coating of epoxy novolac to the inside of a storage tank, we bring in portable air conditioners or heaters," McMahon explains. "This controls the humidity and prevents premature rusting of the exposed metal. Without such precaution, unanticipated coating failure could develop. At the same time, the controlled environment allows workers to continue spraying 24 hours a day instead of just 8. The job gets finished in one-third the time so the tank can get put back on-line that much sooner."

Ready access to the equipment and tools can also make a difference in the timeline. "We heard of one informal time/motion study that revealed the average mechanic spends over an hour each day looking for tools," recounts McMahon. "Ask to see photographs of the contractor's equipment and tool trucks. If you see a gang box filled with a bunch of tools that guys have to dig through, then that disorganization can lead to cost overruns."

4) Have Safe Practices
Safety can never be compromised for the sake of speed. A serious accident can stop a project in its tracks and place a project budget in peril. Checking a contractor's commitment to safety begins at the top.

"Supervisors should attend process safety management training classes so they will set the right tone," notes Tony Collins, former subcontractor and owner of EonCoat. "Once a project begins, conditions should be constantly monitored and safety inspections conducted weekly by the operations manager."

A contractor's membership in the American Society of Safety Engineers also indicates a commitment to reducing injuries. Additionally, the prospective contractor should be able to demonstrate site-specific training of employees. Examples include training in fall protection, respiratory protection, hazardous waste handling, Mine Safety and Health Administration procedures, and a confined-space program.

Signs a Contractor may leave you hanging

  • Lack of project schedules and plans
  • Temporary work crews
  • Inappropriate or underperforming equipment
  • Tool disorganization
  • Apathetic leadership
  • Expensive change orders
  • Lack of professional memberships or certifications
  • Anxious to finish quickly or unconcerned about time

5) Confirm Contingency Plans
Every product manufacturer understands the need for a second source supplier. It should be no different for contractors. The contractor must outline a systematic process to acquire spare parts on an urgent basis when the "inevitable" emergency occurs.

"The contractor should have duplicate pieces of machinery available so if a part breaks it won't halt the work," advises McMahon. "We recently were working around the clock to finish spraying the internal lining of a tank. Because the timeline was so tight we shipped a second, fully-equipped spraying rig to the site. It just sat there as a backup and we never used it, but the expense was well worth the peace of mind."

6) Provide Constant Communication
Few building managers like surprises such as unexpected, expensive change orders or up-scoping. A conscientious contractor must be willing to provide project reports up-front on a daily basis.

"Clarity with the customer is crucial," McMahon stresses. "I recommend that the customer receives three separate reports at the end of each day, each one covering construction overview, safety, and quality. For instance, if we planned to blast and coat 5,000 square feet in a given day and we got that area covered, then we would let plant management know things are on schedule. If we didn't, then we would prepare a list of options and recommendations so that plant management can make an informed decision on how next to proceed."

7) Offer Long-Term Commitment
Look for a contractor who is willing to maintain an on-site presence after completion of the scheduled work. Even beyond that, added value stems from a contractor who is willing to act as a resource for long-term maintenance planning. Such partnerships actually free up the plant's workforce to concentrate on more immediate needs.

"Plant foremen can benefit from permanently delegating some of their technical services to a contractor with expertise in their respective fields," explains Collins. "For example, a supplemental part of some businesses is to develop specifications and procedures to reduce rework and extend service life. Many of the foremen will stay on at a given site to provide valuable services such as corrosion surveys, failure analyses, computerized maintenance painting programs, industrial cleaning, fireproofing, and OSHA pipe labeling and safety-sign surveys."

Ultimately, enlisting the help of a proven contractor on a year-round basis allows building management to keep their permanent staff focused on the core competency of the organization. B

David Rizzo writes technical articles for Torrance, CA-based Power PR. He has published two trade books, 150 technical articles, and 300 newspaper columns.

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