Competency has been a long debated subject in the health and safety profession. It’s an important question too, because it goes to the very heart of how we manage safety. Learning from our experiences of previous major incidents such as Chernobyl, Piper Alpha, Lakanal House and now Grenfell, we can see that there is a true need to have competent people making informed decisions. The subject of competency is becoming more pertinent particularly in the construction and property management sectors.
I remember when I was a newly qualified health and safety professional and attended my first IOSH meeting. The agenda for that day, back in 2005, was a debate about the definition of competency.
Criticism from industry and safety practitioners alike has always been that the term ‘competency’ has never really been clearly defined. For example, the guidance from the Construction, Design and Management (CDM) Regulations in 2007 didn’t have a solid definition on competency requirements and guidance was either too limited – or where there was detail, too prescriptive.
We went some way to bridging the gap by including guidance for organisations buying in expertise on construction projects. The Publicly Available Standard (PAS) 91 shows what measures should be looked at during the pre-qualification stage. However, this only filled a small part of the void by providing a benchmark for recognised training and qualifications. It’s important to realise that training by itself is not the only factor for defining competency.
With the introduction of the new regulations in 2015, we got a clearer picture. Competency is described as “a mixture of experience, skills, knowledge and qualifications in the sector and area you are working”. It also recognised that competency is an ability to recognise your limitations.
And then we had Grenfell, where during the public inquiry there have been questions around competency from the fire service, fire engineers and risk assessors, building designers and construction companies - the list continues. The public inquiry is ongoing.
The final report from Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of building regulations, “Building a Safer Future – Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety” has established that a lack of skills, knowledge and experience and a lack of any formal process for assuring the skills of those engaged at every stage of building high rise residential blocks was a major flaw in the system.
The review acknowledges that although there are many competent people working in the construction, fire and safety industries there is still a lack of a coherent and comprehensive approach to competence, bringing this together under one recognised framework. This fragmentation has led to decisions being taken or work being done by people who do not fully understand the implications of getting it wrong.
We need informed and competent people who are able to make the right decisions about safety because they understand the impact if they don’t. These people also need to feel empowered and come from a position of strength to challenge contractors and consultants. An informed client can get the right result and put safety in the DNA of our buildings, from how they are designed and built, to how they are occupied and managed in the future.
According to the Hackitt Review, the fire and safety industry’s current approach to competency is disjointed and doesn’t reference or interact with others - such as architects, engineers and other specialisms. This means that people are left focusing on their individual specialism without giving consideration to how their work may affect others and how this may impact on safety.
There is also a confusing approach to the levels of competence and experience required. There is no clear guidance to clients on how this can be clearly evidenced to ensure the client can understand and know whether they are employing the right person to do the job. We need informed clients who can demand, challenge and set the expectations around competency when tendering and commissioning both physical works and design works.
Dame Hackitt has given the task of raising levels of competence and establishing formal accreditation to the industry bodies which cover the sectors and roles involved in building work. This requires very strong leadership from within the construction industry, fire and safety sectors, and a real commitment to work together to deliver what is needed. It may also require government involvement to help fund a potential skills gap for example in Clerks of Works and Principal Designers, and fire safety skills. It also requires everyone to pull together to establish a future where we have competent people making sound decisions about safety.
There is clearly more to do to achieve the longer-term improvement in competence levels that is necessary to fix the current broken system. However, there are glimmers of hope as the various industry bodies are now beginning to talk to each other to develop a framework in a more joined up way.
While the Hackitt Review is a step in the right direction, the recommendations around competency alone are not the full answer. The full review has 53 recommendations recognising that true health and safety improvements occur when people, culture, the regulatory environment and management systems are managed effectively together as one system. We all need to adopt this if there are to be any significant and lasting improvements.
Liz Skelton is the Director of Health and Safety at The Guiness Partnership. You can find her on LinkedIn here.