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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

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Safeguard Magazine

Supply side: compliance certifiers

Hazardous substances compliance certifiers are ageing and over-worked while new entrants face big hurdles. JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM looks at the problem and an emerging solution.

Compliance certifiers are the men and women on the frontlines of New Zealand’s hazardous substances management regime. It is their job to assess and approve the safety of sites, equipment and people involved in the use, transportation or storage of toxic, explosive, flammable, or otherwise harmful substances.

However, all is not well in the compliance certification field, with industry veterans telling of a profession operating well below optimum strength, resulting in huge workloads and high pressure for its predominantly ageing workforce.

It’s a situation that worries Peter Menzies, president of Hazardous Substances Professionals NZ (HSPNZ), the industry organisation representing many of the country’s 70 or so certifiers.

“Because of the shortage, we are basically working our guts out to service the clients who come on stream,” he says. “By way of example, my work for last week totalled 85 hours, and I know a lot of our members are in similar situations.

“It creates considerable stress and pressure which may ultimately lead to burnout, and further attrition of the industry.”

Part of the problem, Menzies says, is that, because the profession hasn’t been good at recruiting new blood, the average age of certifiers has been steadily rising.

“A lot of the original test certifiers, as we were then called, had been dangerous goods inspectors under the old [pre-HSNO Act] legislation.

“They were probably, for want of a better word, a mature group at the time, and – 18 years later – there’s still a number of them left.”

It’s an analysis that a recent HASANZ survey backs up. Its findings suggest that some two-thirds of compliance certifiers are aged 55 and over, and about half of this group is now past retirement age.

Compounding the problem is the fact that there is currently no defined career pathway or job-specific training course for compliance certifiers, and the WorkSafe-provided authorisation process for those seeking entry to the industry is, in Menzies’ words, “so damned difficult.”

“We’ve had some certifiers die, a few others who were struck off for performance issues, and several more who have, for various reasons, decided not to renew their approvals,” he says.

“But the only way people are coming into the industry is if they are brought in and trained by existing certifiers. Even then the WorkSafe approval process is incredibly hard to get through.

“The certification industry will self-destruct if we don’t so something about all this.”

BARRIERS TO ENTRY

Menzies’ concerns are echoed by recently retired test certifier Mike Nankivell.

He knows the industry better than most, having spent 12 years as a local authority dangerous goods inspector, before moving to the Explosives and Dangerous Goods Division of the then-regulator, the Department of Labour. When the hazardous substances provisions of the HSNO Act came into force in 2001 he became a departmental HSNO enforcement officer, before leaving to set up his own business as a test (now compliance) certifier.

Last year he sold his business – in part because of work pressure – and is no longer an authorised certifier, although he remains a hazardous substances consultant.

“Over the years I’ve trained four other certifiers, and the application process is, quite frankly, hideous,” he says. “It’s probably the primary obstacle to certification as a career path.”

There are, he says, “about as many parts to the application form as there are letters in the alphabet,” and applicants are required to provide a large amount of detailed evidence, signed off by third parties, to verify their experience and competence. It can take months, he says, to assemble all the documentation to WorkSafe’s satisfaction, before the last step of the process – a sometimes protracted series of interviews with members of WorkSafe’s certifications and approvals team.

“One of my staff members was subjected to a total of 13 hours of telephone interviews,” says Nankivell.

It’s a process that must be repeated, in a modified form, every five years if certifiers wish to retain their authorisation.

IMPACT ON BUSINESS

Peter Menzies appreciates the need to maintain high standards, but he knows the current difficulties of the authorisation and re-authorisation processes are having a negative impact on industry numbers.

“Some certifiers are saying “Bugger this – it’s just too hard.”

“And in other cases, WorkSafe are putting restrictions on some certifier approvals, which limit the areas in which they can operate, and means other certifiers have to come in to fill the gaps.”

Restrictions placed on existing certifiers are also a huge problem for the businesses concerned, Nankivell says.

“Certifiers work very hard to build their client base and establish successful businesses, but when their scope of authorisation is cut, a whole chunk of that business flies out the window.”

It’s possible, he says, for certifiers to reapply for the authorisations they lose, or to extend their scope, but the process is so arduous that some just give up.

Rather than limiting certifiers’ scope – or in some cases, striking off experienced practitioners – he would prefer to see an industry-led mentoring approach, to support and upskill those who may not be up to standard in one or more area of practice.

“A few certifiers I’ve known have been struck off, and others have had their scope of approval so curtailed it’s just not worth their while continuing,” he says.

“I feel it is a waste. Wouldn’t it be better to have an independent, competent person get alongside them, identify where the problems are, and help them up their game?”

Instead, he says, WorkSafe’s approach when dealing with certifiers who are having problems is to conduct increasingly frequent audits.

“I know one certifier who has been audited every year for as long as he’s been in the industry, and it’s taken a heavy toll on him personally.”

INDEPENDENT STATUS

It’s a sore point for Nankivell that those who oversee the certification system are not themselves certifiers, and he compares the situation unfavourably to the old DG regime, under which the people in the regulator’s Explosives and Dangerous Goods division had wide experience in their respective fields, a strong working relationship with frontline staff, and were actively involved in mentoring and training new recruits.

In those days hazardous substances certification was a role for local and regional authorities, but under HSNO the job – essentially a regulatory function – has been outsourced to private enterprise.

“There’s always discomfort when government workers try to partner with the private sector,” he says. “There is a belief that certifiers are agents of the government, but last time I checked none of them were being paid by the government, so how can that be?”

He feels that WorkSafe does not fully respect the certifiers’ independent status, however.

“The government wouldn’t treat SGS, Lloyds or Bureau Veritas the way it treats certifiers, yet their role, as third-party providers, is very similar.”

Menzies and Nankivell both believe the regulator-provided workshops that are the mainstay of the industry’s compulsory CPD programme are too focused on regulation and policy to be particularly valuable to the men and women working in the field.

EMERGING SOLUTION

Now, however, there may be some good news on the horizon for certifiers, with a new initiative on the drawing board that aims to establish a competency framework and develop an industry-specific training package.

For some time HASANZ has been negotiating with WorkSafe, HSPNZ and the profession’s other industry body, the NZ Institute of Hazardous Substances Management, to shape a new training process and secure funding for it.

At the time of going to press WorkSafe has approved in principle to fund a two-year project, and HASANZ executive director Philip Aldridge says sign-off is expected very soon.

“HASANZ will be project managing it, in conjunction with HSPNZ and NZIHSM,” Aldridge says. “The aim is to build the profession by getting certifier numbers up over the next two or three years.”

A key part of the process, he says, will be developing a competency framework, against which certifiers will be able to be assessed. The Skills ITO will be involved to help with the process of turning the training programme – for which Nankivell has drafted a syllabus – into a qualification.

“What we are looking at is probably a diploma or national certificate course that will be delivered in modules.

“You’ll have the option of completing the full course over a couple of years, full or part-time, to become a certifier, or, if you’re a generalist, you can just do a few modules here and there, to upskill yourself in particular aspects of hazardous substance management.”

SIMPLIFICATION

Aldridge says the finished product should go a long way towards simplifying the authorisation process for certifiers, because it will provide an agreed standard of requirements.

For Menzies, it’s a source of light in what has been a very dark tunnel.

“We are heartened by WorkSafe’s funding agreement,” he says. “A lot of compliance certifiers – including myself – have been looking to take new people into their businesses, and having a WorkSafe-endorsed task-specific training course could make a real difference.”

JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM

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