Sooner or later you will be looking to bring an outside contractor into your facility to do specialized work: boiler blasting, concrete waterproofing or ceiling painting. Some type of work your in-house manpower cannot perform on a cost-effective basis. Here’s your key challenge: determining which contractor can best perform the job on time, within budget, with the best outcome and the least lapses in safety. Look for these seven core competencies:

1 — Precise planningThe need to run at 100% production levels at all times heads the list of priorities at most every processing plant. Downtime for maintenance or upgrades interrupts the revenue stream. The best way to avoid having any outside work halt the process is to insure that the contractor provides a precise, 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). “If you can’t build it on paper, you can’t build it in reality.”

2 — A qualified workforceThe pool of skilled craftsman continues to dwindle as more young people seek “knowledge worker” jobs. You must carefully evaluate a contractor’s complement of tradesmen.

“The importance of having a job go smoothly rests, in great part, on the skill of the people actually twisting the wrenches,” says McMahon. “They must possess a basic aptitude for the job as well as a good work ethic.”

Recognized training programs can vouch for satisfactory performance levels from a given craftsman. Plus, most every technical discipline has credentialing bodies which evaluate respective contractors and their employees for competency.

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

3 — The right equipment for the jobThe painful truth: inappropriate or underperforming equipment can greatly increase the time it takes to complete a project. But a contractor can actually cut costs and return the plant to full operation quicker if he or she possesses equipment selected with forethought and applicability to the specific project.

Even something as simple as ready access to the equipment and tools can make a difference in the timeline.

“We heard of one informal time/motion study that revealed the average mechanic spends an hour and five minutes each day looking for tools,” recounts McMahon. “Ask to see photographs of the contractor’s equipment and tool trucks. If, for example, you see a gang box filled with a bunch of tools that guys have to dig through to find what they need, then that disorganization can lead to cost overruns.”

4 — Safe work practicesSafety can never be compromised for the sake of speed. If anything, a serious accident can stop a project in its tracks and immediately place a project budget in peril. Checking a contractor’s commitment to safety begins at the top.

“The mechanics will do whatever the supervisor lets them do,” notes McMahon. “If the foreman allows the workers to stand on a ladder without a safety belt, they will do it. So supervisors should attend ‘process safety management training’ classes so they will set the right tone. Once a project begins, conditions should be constantly monitored and safety inspections are 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 its employees. Examples include training in fall protection, respiratory protection, hazardous waste handling, Mine Safety and Health Administration procedures, and a confined-space program.

5 — Access to spare parts and equipment for unforeseen circumstancesEvery product manufacturer understands the need for a “second source” supplier. It should be no different for contractors who show up to do critical work at a plant. The contractor must outline a systematic process to acquire spare parts on an urgent basis when the “inevitable” emergency occurs.

“I can assure you that you have to have ‘Plan B’ as well as ‘Plan C,’” advises McMahon. “To be really on the safe side, the contractor should have duplicate pieces of machinery at the ready so if a part breaks it won’t halt the work. We recently were working around the clock to finish spraying the internal lining of a tank for a General Electric company. Since the timeline was so tight we shipped a second, fully-equipped spraying rig to the site. It just sat there as a back up and we never used it, but the expense was well worth the peace of mind.”

6 — Constant communication with plant managementFew plant 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.

7 — A willingness to partner for the long runIf a contractor appears anxious to take the money and run, watch out, that’s a red flag.. Some eventually declare bankruptcy, leaving plant management with no recourse if anything goes wrong.

Look for a contractor who is willing to maintain an on-site presence well 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 foreman can benefit from permanently delegating some of their technical services to a contractor with expertise in their respective fields,” explains McMahon. “Many of our foremen stay on at a given site to provide such services as corrosion surveys, failure analyses, computerized maintenance painting programs, industrial cleaning, fireproofing, and OSHA pipe labeling and safety-sign surveys.”