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November 9, 2011

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Construction viewpoint – Building foundations

Competence in construction is a key issue for all those with a stake in improving safety in this complex and hazardous industry, which, last year, saw a worrying rise in worker fatalities. Roderick Dymott presents his views on what needs to be done to achieve competence in the sector, based on significant research published by the HSE earlier this year.

A commentary on routes to competence in the construction sector,1 prepared by Pye Tait Consulting for the HSE and Construction Skills and published this summer, evaluated progress over the last ten years – since the high-level Construction Summit in 2001 – looking specifically at routes to competence available to those in non-professional, site-based roles.

The report presents much factual evidence and valuable observation that should, if properly interpreted and thoughtfully used, cause those in the construction and related sectors to apply fresh thinking to training and the work site.

The construction sector, and its support services, is chiefly a ‘blue-collar’ profession but it is a profession nonetheless and one which should, perhaps, take itself more seriously. Competence is not a well-understood concept in construction and it is not all that straightforward to define, but let’s say it is ‘the knowledge and skills to carry out a task safely and effectively’.

Too often, competence is simply taken to mean ‘time served’ – in other words, experience equals knowledge, and the notion that the man who has ‘seen it all, done it all’ should be more likely to avoid potential dangers. But competence is not a sure accompaniment to experience, or longevity, nor is it about energy, or enthusiasm – though both help. Indeed, if it has been present and then is lost, accidentally or deliberately, then it should be noticed – by the employer and the individual concerned.

The HSE report includes a telling graph that suggests the more specialised the work, the more safety conscious the worker but many of us could quote examples where the seasoned veteran can become lazy, while the novice has the concentration brought on by a new challenge.

The individual components of ‘competence’ can be more easily identified and when you examine them you may find that you have not been giving them the attention they deserve. This, together with an absence of work discipline, could result in a lack of competence among workers.

For example, behavioural issues, effective decision-making and workplace awareness are all components of competence but how often are they meaningfully covered in training courses, or pre-work toolbox talks? Well-planned training will have competence elements built in and this commitment to the concept, together with the learning itself, will filter through to the daily site regime.

The ‘safety ethic’ on site must be understood and valued by the whole workforce, from the managing director to the most junior employee, because if a professional and diligent attitude is not encouraged then no amount of guidance or training can make good the shortfall.

Card cacophony
The fact that a worker holds myriad cards, badges, or certificates is not, by itself, evidence that he or she is competent; even those who have had to pass extensive tests and practical examinations must continue to commit daily to maintaining personal competence.

The plethora of card schemes, qualification procedures and badges in today’s construction industry has long been a cause for concern, and the HSE report, unsurprisingly, focuses heavily on this issue. (It notes that there are currently some 2.6 million cards of all types and levels in circulation for a workforce of ca. 1.5 million.)

One of the notions that the report essentially destroys is that, if you hold a card issued by one of the many organisations that provide ‘evidence of capability’ in this form, you are bound to work safely. In fact, the researchers found that just 4 per cent of such cards require the holder to produce any evidence of capability, meaning the vast majority of them can be simply ‘bought’ rather than earned.

Consequently, the report asks stakeholders to consider whether a Construction Industry Card Registrations Authority is needed. However, I suggest that this would be overkill and risks the industry accepting the lowest common denominator rather than pressing for higher standards to be set and achieved. Nevertheless, now is surely the time to consider what the majority of these cards actually mean to the industry, and to assess whether they are just a ‘comfort blanket’ that eases the mind and delays stronger action?

So, a strong message in the report is that you cannot, or should not be able to ‘buy’ your way to safe work certification – that you cannot, indeed, ‘buy’ competence. To emphasise their findings, the researchers evidenced cases where training, retraining, and regular worker assessment did bring about higher levels of efficiency and safe working. The question is therefore clear: do we apply the highest standards, or content ourselves with something that has little, or no meaning?

Whether or not the report will cause card schemes to be looked at afresh is uncertain – for some, it is a major revenue stream – but hopefully, the emphasis now being placed on competence will bring about some fresh thinking.

Training is key
To understand better what competence is, we also need to decide what it is not. As already discussed, it is not just experience, or energy, or enthusiasm, and it is certainly not necessarily proved by qualifications and cards – earned or bought. The checklist for removing incompetence from an organisation or work team should start with training and end with the employment of appropriate and proven work procedures.

Competence has to be worked towards in the same manner as qualifications but there are no certificates for competence on its own, and that is how it should be. Those who train, supervise and assess workers will be aware of the level of workplace ability they are seeking but they should also have sufficient experience to be able to assess competence.

Both skilled and novice workers can suffer when faced with imprecise work instructions, complex methodology, language issues and time constraints, but if they are operating in a situation where a strong safety commitment permeates the whole site and all levels of personnel, they will be at a huge advantage.

In terms of workplace training schemes, the HSE report is critical of those that are superficial, or which do not involve serious learning. Unfortunately, many employers still consider time taken out for training to be valuable work time lost, but there is convincing proof that serious training, from a simple plan for straightforward work to thorough and extensive courses for those taking on more complex work, repays the effort expended.

Workplace training should set high personal standards and incorporate the key elements of appropriate behaviour, situational awareness, and well-considered decision-making. It must also include an element of compulsory renewal of skills, as it is human nature to accept the status quo, and assume standards can and will be maintained.

Increasing the level of workplace competence requires a training regime that needs to encompass not only basic work skills but also understanding of the system of work, the importance of teamwork and the role of senior management, and a safety culture that shuns apathy and expediency and embraces attention to detail.

Human factors also figure prominently in the HSE report, whose authors call for more focus on responsible behaviour and attitudes, and the adoption of a robust human-factors approach. In Annex 5, there is an interesting case study from the world of aviation, where a substantial initiative was employed to encourage everyone – from the highly-skilled pilot to the maintenance engineer, whose knowledge of their respective sectors was extraordinarily detailed – to incorporate human-factor issues into their work and training.

It was established that human factors had contributed to a significant proportion of accidents, so specific changes were made to the training regime, which have since realised major benefits for flight safety. One of the issues addressed, for example, was the co-pilot’s natural inclination to defer to the captain, which created a psychological barrier to safety; the co-pilot was effectively being ‘trained out’ of flight procedures.

Good training helps deliver confidence and competence but, inevitably, much of it focuses on individual skills and safety and not enough on teamwork and group responsibilities. To truly breed confidence, training, as well as adding to knowledge and understanding, should encourage and test levels of skill. It should also be able to root out ill-founded confidence, showmanship and lack of empathy with fellow workers.

The best training programmes will encourage a strong team ethic and an understanding of human characteristics. They help trainees understand not only the technical elements of the work they need to do but also the value of shared responsibility and adherence to agreed procedures. They are not rushed, or too brief, and follow a set syllabus. Independent assessment of trainees at the end of the training further contributes to building competence and confidence.

Of course, the trainees’ journey towards competence does not end at qualification; they then need to be supported and empowered to carry their learning and experience forward into a long and enjoyable career in an industry where competence is prized, appreciated and maintained.

‘Competence in construction’ could sound like just another flag to wave, a new theme for the theorists, a new buzz-word that will wither on the vine. However, if that is how the HSE’s landmark report is treated, then the industry will have missed an opportunity to apply itself to a fresh concept that could cause a sea-change in workplace attitudes to measuring performance and advance it further towards the goal of safe working. 


Roderick Dymott is CEO of the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association

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