No one likes discussing liability — it involves nasty things such as accidents, lawsuits and financial settlements. But it is an important issue that BSCs should consider before bidding for work. After all, many clients take liability very seriously.

Lately, the big question at American University in Washington, D.C., has been who is liable in case of a safety violation or, worse, an accident? The verdict is not in yet, but there are plenty of opinions.

On one side are those who think that if the school gets involved in the contractor’s safety plan, then the school is liable for that plan. Others believe the school must get involved because it ultimately will share liability with the contractor anyway.

The university’s director of physical plant operations, Willy Suter, falls into the latter camp.

“If we tell them to comply with safety rules, then we have only laid a requirement on them — we don’t know if it’s actually taking place,” Suter says. “We have to be more involved in order to show that we’ve done due diligence.”

It is beneficial to both client and contractor to discuss this issue. Since each bears some responsibility for safety violations, addressing it in the contract provides each party some measure of protection from liability. Plus, a well-prepared BSC is likely to win more jobs than a competitor who does not understand or address these issues.

Clients like Suter appreciate contractors who come to the table armed with knowledge about the liability issues specific to cleaning.

“I need contractors who come to me prepared to create a site-specific safety plan,” Suter says. “They should want to make sure they are in alignment with our plans, rather than having to be pulled in kicking and screaming.”

The best thing contractors can do to please a client is include a site-specific safety plan in contracts. This goes beyond the corporate safety plan that is tucked into most proposal — this also includes information specific to the customer’s facility and their safety plan.

The plan should address such situations as how to handle a bloodborne pathogen spill. The plan should comply not only with the contractor’s safety rules, but it also should lock into the client’s safety program.

Until a few years ago, American University did not require a site-specific plan. That changed, Suter says, after he read about a family that sued a business after a contract worker died there; they won because, in part, the host did not have a site-specific safety plan.

Of course, simply including site-specific language in a contract is not enough for many clients. Be prepared for clients who want to take a more active role in safety oversight. Like Suter, they may fear that without constant plan review and project oversight they will increase their liability.

Suter has good reason to be concerned. He often visits work sites and finds that some contractors have a different, typically much less strict, take on Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. What’s worse, when Suter approaches contract workers about safety violations, they often say something like, ‘I don’t work for you.’

So Suter got proactive. He now provides a pocket guide for contractors and their employees that goes over what personal protective equipment must be used for what activity, according to American University’s guidelines. The school also keeps its own set of material safety data sheets (MSDS), which provide valuable and required information about handling toxic materials.

“Contractors are still responsible for making sure the frontline cleaner has access to a MSDS,” Suter says. “But my employees also need to have access to that same information and that’s the big change that the contractors need to be aware of.”

By working more closely on safety issues, Suter says both client and contractor will have fewer problems and a better working relationship.

Becky Mollenkamp is a business writer and editor based in Des Moines, Iowa.