The buck stops with the operator

Operator responsibility, operator liability or operator obligation management - whatever you call it, it sounds like rather a dry and dull topic. And it may well be just that from the perspective of the less involved reader. But for those responsible for this area, it can be very lively and real. Let’s begin with a simple comparison: road users naturally have to observe the applicable rules when in traffic. They are also obliged to ensure that their vehicle is roadworthy before getting behind the wheel, in other words they have to perform a kind of hazard assessment. Are the indicators working? What about the rear lights? Is the roof rack securely attached? A vehicle owner has obligations even if they don’t drive anywhere too, such as making sure their vehicle undergoes regular technical inspections. Or they can be made personally liable for damages if they fail to pay their motor insurance premiums. It’s a question of their own safety – but more than anything else of the safety of other road users. And much the same goes for the running of entire buildings with their systems and facilities.

Business owners are operators too

You don’t have to manually operate a system yourself for you to be partly responsible for it – a business owner or a manager who simply runs a system is an operator too. An operator is defined as anyone who could have or should have prevented damage by thinking or by means of responsible action. Operation incidentally also includes maintenance and servicing, inspection, repairs and improvements where necessary. An operator is therefore liable for operation in accordance with the regulations and for proper maintenance. This operator responsibility is a legal obligation to ensure the safe operation of a system, a building, any other hazard source or an area which is open to the public.

And it goes without saying that there are rules to be observed here, ranging from public law (e.g. building regulations and fire protection) and labour law (e.g. Germany’s Ordinance on Industrial Safety and Health [BetrSichV]) to environmental law, energy law and legal duties to maintain safety. This extensive and complex responsibility can only be assumed and risks minimised if there is an adequate understanding of the object in question and its use, the installed technical systems and facilities, the statutory and legal requirements related to operation and possibly also duties which have been contractually agreed with other parties. Metaphorically speaking, you could say that to assume this responsibility, you perhaps need a lever arch file in your head – or indeed even an entire library.

Daniel Michalek, DMT, registered inspector in accordance with building legislation: ‘The most important thing about operator liability management is to always keep up to date.’

Operator obligations have to be ‘managed’ too

This is why reliable and seamless operator obligation management is so important. Operator responsibility management is defined as an overarching, networked system for the comprehensive organisation, management and development of a company in such a way that risks associated with operational processes are identified and minimised, acceptable residual risks are defined and responsibility is taken for them. This ideally means complying with all public law and contractual regulations and, if necessary, being able to prove this beyond doubt. A major enterprise can obviously see to this itself – if they have all the necessary experts on board, stay up to date with the ever-changing legal requirements and are familiar with the increasing technical requirements. This often requires experts in a large number of different disciplines to be seated around a table together with project managers, legal advisors and the decision makers.

Alternatively, companies can seek assistance with this task from external service providers – such as DMT. There are a number of advantages to doing so. We are in a position to cover all the areas needed and can put a use-based team together which is tailored to a customer’s needs, to advise them. The team can comprise everything from recognised building legislation experts for all the technical areas and experts in the fields of fire and explosion protection, health protection and emission protection to professional trainers who can teach company employees what they need to know. After all, the diverse array of regulations calls for diverse skills that small and medium-sized enterprises can rarely provide – or can only provide at a high cost. And while it may not go down well with some people, there is also the fact that independent experts are able to see the bigger picture and are more adept at overcoming departmental boundaries.

Complexity increases the risk

Daniel Michalek, DMT, registered inspector in accordance with building legislation

Seemingly straightforward projects can become complicated too. Let’s say you want to air-condition an existing office. Approval is not always needed for this (provided the work is performed in accordance with the regulations and provided the filters are replaced at regular intervals). In particular as our summers are getting hotter and hotter, air conditioning can result in greater comfort and quite literally a good workplace climate. This brings us directly to operating obligations, as your system may well be subject to Germany’s Energy Conservation Ordinance (EnEV). Which means that, with refrigerating capacity of, for example, more than 12 kW, you would have to have energy inspections on the system performed by experts. New requirements suddenly also apply from an occupational health and safety perspective, with regular hygiene inspections and operation in accordance with the VDI 6022 guidelines being mandatory. And if you operate an evaporative cooling system, the 42nd Federal Immission Control Ordinance (BImSchV) comes into play because of the risk of Legionella. This means there is a duty of disclosure regarding the system (since 19 July 2018), a duty to examine it for Legionella, a requirement to observe examination and action values and mandatory regular monitoring performed by experts. The first of these reviews had to have been performed by 19 August 2019. These simple examples show that both ongoing operations and any changes made to a system can have serious consequences.

Operator Responsibility Management at DMT

DMT therefore advises and assists customers with these tasks ranging from analysis and surveying to documentation, risk assessment, the tracking of legal requirements and recommendations for action, as well as tailored concept development and the managed implementation of legally watertight Operator Responsibility Management. We maintain 19 accredited and industry-recognised testing and expert bodies, such as an inspection body for cooling towers with its own dedicated experts, which has been in existence since May 2019. We offer a vocational training programme, either at our seminar centre in Dortmund or externally at the customer’s premises. If you make the decisions at your company, are involved in property or maintenance management, or are an operations or property manager, this should all be of interest to you. Please find out more by visiting the DMT websites, for example, to learn more about the topic of consulting in this area, plant and product safety or our portfolio of seminars. Make sure you don’t get caught out.


Information, suggestions or questions to the topic? We welcome your feedback.

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