Time for a gas assessment overhaul

With too many vested interests and a lack of accountability, is the current training and assessment system for gas installers letting down both the public and competent installers? John Martin argues that it’s about time that the industry considered serious reform.

There seems to be a distinct lack of accountability with regards to the training and assessment of gas installers. Instead, there just seems to be a continuing increase in the various layers of so-called approvals, with none of these being adequately policed – just another layer of fees  ultimately being swallowed by the already hugely burdened installer.

The latest is the IGEM approval of new entrant training, commonly referred to as ‘Managed Learning Programmes’ (MLP), under the document IGEM/IG/1. Having been privy to, indeed having paid for one such approval audit, I can say that from an experienced auditor perspective, the process was nothing short of a joke.

What makes it worse still is that those certificating the MLP are not obliged to review the candidate’s portfolio of evidence. As such, many portfolios which should demonstrate on-site experience are instead the product of in-centre simulations.

‘That shouldn’t matter’, I hear you say, ‘as the individual has to complete an ACS initial assessment’. But again, certification bodies and UKAS fail to adequately police ‘rogue’ centres, because these centres are typically the very centres generating the most fees for the Certification Body – surely a conflict of interest.

Remember also that in the early days of ACS, the Health and Safety Executive asked to see the ‘pass rate’ statistics and when it was found to be 98% they were satisfied that there were no serious concerns with the competence of gas installers. They should have asked how many pass on the first attempt because that would have told a different story. Now, let’s be honest, a scheme that gives you potentially five attempts before you have failed the assessment, when the multiple-choice questions only have four potential answers, is hardly robust – you would have to go some to fail it!

‘But surely’, I hear you say again, ‘when Gas Safe Register comes to inspect a new registrant, they will suspend him if he cannot demonstrate adequate knowledge and competence?’ But no! They may reduce his scope of work, but in reality they do not withhold registration, even though in some cases  the applicant cannot even carry out a tightness test correctly.

Instead, Gas Safe Register reports to Certification Bodies that an operative has been identified as undertaking dangerous work and that he was trained/assessed at one of their approved centres, leaving it to the Certification Body to decide what, if any action should be taken.

Assessment process

New entrants are no longer assessed by Gas Safe prior to their registration being approved. The reasoning for this is that a candidate has been certificated as competent by a UKAS accredited Certification Body so, therefore, it should be reasonable to assume that the candidate is indeed competent.

If we look at data from Gas Safe Register for the last five years we can see that, on average, there are 7096 new entrant registrations each year and, of these, Gas Safe only inspect 23% in the first year. Of those inspected, 30 are found to have carried out gas work categorised as either ‘At Risk’ or ‘Immediately Dangerous’. It can therefore be assumed that if all new registrants were inspected then over 120 such installations might be found. Remember, this is just one inspection of work, so how many other installations have gone undetected?

Many of these new entrants will have undertaken an IGEM approved MLP and then been assessed at an approved centre before being certificated as competent by a UKAS accredited Certification Body!

Production line

The truth is candidates are being coached to pass assessments rather than being properly trained. It is a very lucrative production line.

If we take the Gas Safe Register failure rate for new entrants and assume just one gas job per day is being undertaken by new entrants, and assuming 250 working days per year, then over the last five years there could have been as many as 160,000 unsafe jobs undertaken. Is this really acceptable? Is the current system protecting the public?

I believe that Gas Safe Register should have confidence in the system, but their findings suggest that maybe they should re-introduce the pre-registration assessment of new entrants as the UKAS accredited process is clearly no longer fit for purpose and perhaps after 20 years it is time to overhaul this process.

The new entrant market is extremely lucrative. Unfortunately, this means the ‘guaranteed pass’ scenario comes into play – pay your money and away you go, instant Category 1 applicant, despite potentially never having worked on a real job.

The whole process is actually simple to police, but at every level, conflict of interest applies (a contravention of one of the fundamental principals of ISO17024:2012):

  Centres operating in a competitive market can’t make it too difficult for candidates to pass, or word gets out and they lose their clients to another even less scrupulous centre.

  Some Certification Bodies are reluctant to suspend or sanction centres that flaunt the rules as they are generally a high revenue customer and may very well jump ship if they are put under pressure to comply.

  IGEM, new to the game, but a nice new and welcome income stream for them approving the MLPs, but the Gas Safe statistics show this process to be flawed.

• UKAS – the gas scheme is a good earner for UKAS and if the scheme failed due to Certification Body suspensions or lost credibility then the HSE might rightly question the point of UKAS.

Safety concern

How can we have this situation where competent engineers who work hard, maintain their competence and who jump through all the hoops are having to contend and compete with installers who should not be allowed to work? The even bigger concern is the seeming disregard for public safety.

Over the years, I have had many installers say to me how sickened they have been to see new entrants being passed by ACS centres. In fact, passed is not the right word, being coached and in some cases even given the answers, is the truth of the matter.

One of the problems with our industry is that nobody wants to make a fuss, happy to have a moan down at the plumber’s merchants over a coffee, but it seldom goes further. We might seem to be dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s with procedures coming out of our ears, but if nobody actually bothers to look to see if these procedures are being followed, then it’s all pointless.

I believe I could go into several of the ACS Certification Bodies tomorrow and demonstrate they do not have the resource to undertake the decision-making process as they document it in their UKAS approved procedures, so why can’t UKAS?

Perhaps the HSE should police the industry, build a small charge into the process (at the same time cutting out one or two layers of ineffective regulation and the associated fees) and then there is no conflict of interest. Hefty fines need to be imposed on those found to be in breach  because, as it stands, they know that there is little chance of being found out or brought to task.

About the author

Having worked on the tools for 16 years, John Martin entered the training, assessment and certification market, where he has worked for more than 20 years for the likes of Zurich Certification, before becoming Scheme Director of Logic Certification and then owner and MD of Benchmark Certification. He is currently working as a freelance consultant and author.

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