A contractor’s guide to creating a safe work environment

A contractor on a roof.
4 minute read  

As a contractor, you may travel to construction sites, work on elevated structures, or work in confined spaces. This may present new risks to health and safety, including fire, damage to equipment, injury, and losses. To help you and your employees approach these different work situations and protect your business, we outline a few risk management tips to consider for your safety program.

Fire protection

If you work in a shop or yard, it’s important to keep smoke and fire detection devices onsite, as well as portable fire extinguishers. Make sure you install adequate lighting, such as floodlights at night, to help you spot potential fire hazards and store equipment properly.

Here are other helpful tips to keep in mind to safely store your material, products, and equipment:

  • Material and equipment stored in sheds or in the open air should be subdivided into fire sections with a maximum value of $750,000. Try to provide space between sections to allow easy access.
  • Combustible material should be marked clearly and stored separately.
  • Packing materials, combustibles, and explosives should be stored at a safe distance from buildings and stores.

Guidelines for temporary heating

You may use temporary heating during the colder months if you work outside. Before using it, check that your heater is approved by a recognized testing organization such as the UL/ULC or CSA. Each heater also has a data plate indicating the necessary clearances to combustibles, ventilation requirements, and fuel type. Keep multi-purpose fire extinguishers nearby when using a temporary heater. They should have a minimum rating of 3A 10BC.

Hot work

Hot work is any process that uses or generates open flames, sparks, or heat. This includes welding, cutting, or brazing. If you or your employees regularly conduct hot work onsite, you may be at a higher risk of fire – in fact, it’s one of the three most common causes of fires and material losses on insured properties.

Before conducting hot work, whether at a client’s site or on your own property, survey the area first and remove combustible material. Any combustible material that can’t be removed should have thermal barriers over it for protection. Conduct a fire watch for at least sixty minutes after finishing hot work. Finally, check with your insurance provider for any limitations in your liability coverage related to hot work.

Here are potential situations where a fire may be sparked:

  • Welding and cutting of metal performed in open areas or near pits, close to combustible parts, materials, or construction elements.
  • Sparks and hot slag generated by hot work processes can fly, roll, bounce, and shower onto floors, ceilings, walls, and other elevated surfaces or get lodged into cracks and crevices.
  • Sparks and hot slag can travel very far, with the potential to ignite any combustible material nearby, both horizontally and vertically. The minimum radius distance to be cautious within is 15 metres (50 feet).
  • Operations such as grinding, thermal spraying, roofing membrane application (hot process), and frozen pipe thawing.

In many cases, damages and losses caused by hot work are the result of negligence, lack of or improper training, and failing to follow work safety guidelines and protocols. Many general construction businesses have a hot work management program to outline safety protocols aimed at identifying hot work hazards and managing associated risks. It also includes policies, procedures, and the assignment of responsibilities and accountabilities for all aspects of hot work.

Working in confined spaces

Many contractors may have to work in a confined space during a project. A confined space is any space where a dangerous atmosphere may develop, such as a storage tank, sewer tunnel, or underground vault.

Working in confined spaces can be dangerous for the following reasons:

  • Too much oxygen in a confined space will increase the risk of fire.
  • Too little oxygen will cause suffocation.
  • There might be toxic gas that could overcome a worker or flammable gas.
  • There might be vapour that could be ignited into a fireball by a single spark.

A safety plan can help you and your employees determine whether it is safe enough to work in a confined space and how to do so effectively. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Assess the atmosphere with oxygen meters, flammable gas or vapour detectors. Use meters for specific toxic gases such as hydrogen sulphide or carbon monoxide, as well as multi-meters with modules for more than one toxic gas.
  • A self-contained breathing apparatus, also known as a SCBA respirator, can provide breathable air when there isn’t enough oxygen in the atmosphere, when there’s more than one toxic gas, or when it’s not known what hazards might exist. You can pair this with a chemical protective suit.


Another safety concern you may have as a contractor is the risk of falling, especially with jobs on towers or bridges. Before you or your employees work on any elevated structure, make sure to attend orientation sessions and safety training.

If you’re a smaller contractor or subcontractor hired to do a job on an elevated structure, make sure that certain precautions are in place to help prevent falls. Guardrails are the most common, but if they aren’t practical or possible, make sure you have access to either of these pieces of equipment:

  • Fall restraint – This is also known as work positioning. It consists of a body harness or belt worn by the worker and a tether attached to a secure anchor point. Tradespeople working on a roof, for example, might use fall restraint.
  • Fall arrest – This is designed to bring a worker to a safe stop after falling. It consists of a body harness (belts are not recommended) and a shock-absorbing lanyard that must be tied off to a safe anchor point. If the worker falls, the lanyard will absorb some of the shock, and the worker will be left hanging to climb back or wait for rescue. People working high above the ground on a steel tower, for example, would use fall arrest.

Build a policy to help address the risks you face everyday

Our team can help you protect your business from the risks you face on the job everyday – from equipment breakdown to property losses and liability. We take the time to understand what you do, so we can build a policy that is unique to your needs. Learn more by visiting our Contractors Insurance page today!

This blog is provided for information only and is not a substitute for professional advice. We make no representations or warranties regarding the accuracy or completeness of the information and will not be responsible for any loss arising out of reliance on the information.