One of the outcomes of the Hackitt review of Building Regulations was a concern regarding the competence of all those who design, commission, build and manage high-risk residential buildings (HRRBS). Dame Judith rightly recommended that an overarching framework to manage and ensure competence be set up for all involved in the construction industry.
This is quite a tall order, bearing in mind the vested interests and the fragmentation between professions, trade associations, educational interests and employers, to name a few. Everybody wants their particular solution to be imposed upon the rest. Some have an interest in doing little, but the groundswell of opinion is that the days of the cowboy builder – including the ‘white van man fire stopper’ armed with only a mastic gun and a bread knife – are numbered. All actors within construction will be required to have appropriate qualifications, training and experience and be able to demonstrate this.
With this in mind, the Industry Response Group (made up of the Construction Industry Council, the Construction Products Association and Build UK) has set up a Competency Steering Group to examine the issue and develop a solution. Beneath the steering group, several Working Groups have been created covering everyone from designers and architects (WG7), installation contractors (WG2) and fire-risk assessors (WG4), right through to building safety managers (WG8). Of those listed above, WG2 and WG4 are of most interest, since these are areas where, apart from a few notable exceptions, there is very little (if any) regulation, benchmarked training or qualifications, and what exists is all voluntary.
Currently if you want to install fire protection, be a fire-risk assessor or be a fire consultant, there are no requirements to be qualified and trained or to be on any kind of register. Not surprisingly then, to create an overarching framework to deliver competence across the sector is no small task, particularly since many areas are starting with nothing and there is little in the way of structures of scale.
There are those who have their own particular solutions in place, either that they have developed over the years, or in the more recent past. One of the main areas of contention concerns the competency of contractors. Organisations from the fire sector strongly favour third-party certification of installation contractors as the way to demonstrate competence, whilst those from the wider construction industry rest their hopes on NVQs and the CSCS (Construction Skills Certification Scheme) card scheme. For the passive fire-protection sector, this involves achieving an NVQ level 2, which is the route to acquiring a CSCS Blue card, denoting a skilled worker.
In terms of demonstrating competence, the idea of a card-type system with specialisms listed on the reverse, rather like the vehicle groups on the driving licence is attractive, and there is a mechanism for this. Unfortunately, the route to obtaining such cards is unsatisfactory and often not rigorous enough. It encompasses a mixture of grandfather rights (being phased out, but slowly) and on-site assessments of workers (OSAT). A concern for many of the specialist industry sectors, including passive fire protection, is that the assessors may not be sufficiently skilled in the particular specialism and thus the assessment may become something of a tick-box exercise.
And this is the nub of the problem. We have an industry of thousands of workers who are either unskilled, or who cannot effectively demonstrate their competence.
This is partly why the ASFP and other fire-trade associations have supported third-party certification of contractors, which has been a requirement of ASFP contractor membership for more than 20 years. Third-party certification, as its name suggests, is an evaluation of a service that is independent of the contractor being certificated. Unlike competent person schemes (self-certification) or CSCS cards (where competence is often justified by an on-site assessment procedure), third-party certification involves an initial and then annual audit of the contracting organisation. Third-party certification schemes include:
- Audit of the company’s records to ensure that they are actually purchasing materials and products that they say they are and not substituting with inferior alternatives
- Evaluation of the competency of workers by checking their qualifications and training, on-site computer-based questionnaires and observation of work being undertaken or previously completed
- Inspection of a percentage of completed works
- Ensuring traceability of installed works by means of labelling and completion certificates
- Authentication of contractors by reference to the certification body website to see if they are certificated to undertake the relevant type of fire protection
There are some concerns that very small businesses, for example small joinery companies, are unable to afford third-party certification, or that it is too much for a business of a few individuals. However, certification is a very flexible tool and it is very easy to certificate individuals using EN ISO 17024, the standard for personnel certification. The absence of a mandatory requirement for third-party certification has meant that to date there hasn’t been the demand, or the drive, necessary to make this the norm, despite all the benefits that such schemes can bring.
Whatever the Contractor Competency Working Group proposes may yet be overtaken by Government. The Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) response to the Hackitt review of Building Regulations stated that Government would implement all of her recommendations and, would ‘continue to work with industry to establish minimum standards for third party certification of key fire safety products, including their installation and inspection.’
The Government has said that they will consult in the spring on a raft of measures arising from the Implementation Plan and the ASFP believes that third-party certification of contractors is being actively considered. The ASFP believes that third-party certification adds value and provides end users with the confidence that installations will be undertaken correctly.