If your fleet maintenance is carried out by an external provider, a separate legal entity, it is easy to think of your contractor as remote and not part of your legal responsibility to maintain fit and serviceable vehicles on the road – but this is not the case writes Tim Ridyard.
Having the soundest maintenance regime is key to safe and efficient fleet operations and the preservation of the Operator’s Licence, without which the business cannot function. The maintenance provider may often be external provider or an internal resource or a combination. From an operator licensing point of view it matters not: the standard to be achieved is the same and, to quote IRTE, whilst “vehicle operators can sub-contract their vehicle inspection, repair and maintenance, they cannot sub-contract their responsibilities for vehicle road worthiness.”
So, how best to manage your maintenance contractors to ensure the correct standards are reached? And what are the risks of non-compliance?
A failure to manage internal and/or external maintenance providers properly adversely affects the Operator’s Licence and makes no business sense:
Transport Managers who fail to manage contractors properly despite their ‘continuous and effective’ obligation also risk personal action being taken against their good repute and professional competence The recent revisions to the Senior Traffic Commissioner Statutory Documents continue to emphasise the importance of the Transport Manager role and how operators and they will be expected to demonstrate continuing professional development e.g. appropriate 2 day refresher training evidenced at certain trigger points such as 5-year Licence renewals.
Operators (and TMs) need to consider the consequences of failure to manage contractors properly. A very extreme example of mismanagement occurred in the multiple fatality Bath Tipper case where the contractor’s work was wholly inadequate over an extended period of time, totally unchecked by the operator. Such cases are relatively rare and gross negligence manslaughter is only proved where the negligence is extreme and there has been the creation of obvious risks. It is still a wake-up call.
Poor maintenance work is more commonly likely to lead to roadside fixed penalties imposed on drivers (that feed back to the Traffic Commissioner) or prosecution by DVSA / police for C & U offences all of which are notifiable and impact on OCRS figures.
There are now also draconian health and safety fines imposed following the change in sentencing guidelines in February 2016. Operators need to have proper arrangements in place for maintenance contractors who carry out their work on-site, as well as arrangements for own staff. An external contractor working at the operator’s site can be regarded in law as being part of the operator’s undertaking where something goes wrong, meaning all can be prosecuted.
Appointing a contractor calls for a thorough due diligence procedure. This must include: meeting the contractor; inspecting facilities: information about annual test performance: qualifications of workshop staff (IRTE qualified); is workshop IRTE-accredited; contractor knowledge base; understanding of Traffic Commissioner e.g. re brake testing; proper insurances in place? (The HSE recently successfully prosecuted a maintenance provider for failure to have employer liability insurance.)
The Operator must have a contract with every maintenance provider listed on the operator’s licence but is it adequate? A more detailed contract may be better so that there is a measuring stick and clarity in the event of any dispute. The operator may wish to include a schedule of service standards and expectations e.g. relating to test history and production of information and prompt paperwork.
Operators must demand from the maintenance contractor prompt production of paperwork and information relating to inspections and test presentations. They must inform the operator of adverse and unusual events. Operators themselves should keep detailed records of communications and correspondence/telephone calls with their maintenance providers.
Paperwork / IT
All records and documentation provided by maintenance providers must be inspected by the operator and this is in fact an auditing of the contractor by the operator. It must be complete on up-to-date documentation – not ones with obsolete IM numbers printed years ago. Failings need to be rigorously chased by the operator. Incomplete documentation may mean that the work was carried out but recorded - or it was not actually carried out at all.
At all times the operator must expect the very highest standard of workmanship with an excellent test history and an absence of issues leading to prohibitions or test failures/PRS. The risk here is for the operator to allow the odd failure or mishap to go unmarked or unactioned. However, these “own goals” accumulate and lead to problems such as the reluctance of the Traffic Commissioner to grant a licence increase given an apparent poor or mediocre standard.
The knowledge pre-requisite
All the above depends on the operator and, crucially, the Transport Manager understanding what is expected and keeping completely up to date. Every single legal change, DVSA policy announcement or other relevant events should trigger the thought: how does this affect our maintenance regime and is our provider aware? After all, how can the maintenance provider be managed if it not known what is expected of them! Many changes came into force in May 2018 including a revised DVSA Guide to Maintaining Roadworthiness (to be updated this autumn). But how many operators processed all this material and proactively checked their maintenance contractors’ awareness?
By proper constant and proactive policing of maintenance providers (including those in-house) the crucial operator’s licence can be preserved and criminal liability can also be avoided. It also makes good business sense.