The end of March marked an important milestone for anyone working in the asbestos-removal industry: a full year of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s new licensing regime. It’s been a turbulent 12 months, with initial head-scratching giving way to very real challenges for licensed asbestos-removal contractors (LARCs) and the HSE alike.
So what changed, what was it like for people on the front line, and what’s the situation now? In addition to our work helping customers successfully renew their licenses, we’ve been speaking to contacts within industry bodies and the regulator to get the clearest picture. Here’s our take on where we’ve been, where we are, and what’s coming next.
For those who haven’t been following the saga, from the start of April 2019 the HSE began piloting a new asbestos-removal licence regime. Its intended goal was to shift some of the onus and therefore workload from the HSE to the licence holder.
Under the previous system, LARCs would submit a comparatively small amount of documentation outlining their competence, and the HSE’s inspectors would come along to assess it for themselves. It was perceived that in some cases, part of that process would involve the HSE assessor rephrasing their questions until the ‘right answer’ was given – a helping hand over the line if you like. All being well, the HSE would renew the licence, applying any conditions it found necessary.
With the new system, the HSE shifted the focus away from its own inspections, placing the onus on LARCs to provide extensive evidence backing up their competence. Key to this is a new, multi-section online form, through which the applicant provides clear evidence to show how they plan, execute and audit jobs to an exemplary standard.
The HSE’s shakeup was long overdue. Like many in the industry, I’d been calling for the abolition of the different length licences seen under the previous system. These were often – mistakenly – seen as an indicator of a contractor’s competence. Asbestos-removal licensing needed to be simplified, and the HSE needed to concentrate on improving industry standards.
On the surface of it, the overhaul was almost exactly what we’d been asking for. Out went variable length approvals in favour of fixed three-year licences without publicly visible conditions attached. And the move away from inspections promised to reduce the workload on already overstretched assessors.
Did it go wrong?
It’s hard to avoid the impression that the changes caught everyone out – including the HSE itself. Launched as a trial with little publicity, early applicants found themselves reapplying through a radically changed system, with precious little guidance on what the new requirements were. LARCs were unsure of the format and content of the evidence that the HSE was after, so the latter soon found itself struggling with the overheads of dealing with inconsistent applications, using wildly different methods of evidencing.
There were other teething problems. Rather than present LARCs with a slick online interface, the new online form actually required evidence to be submitted via emails. Many of the first applicants reported that the incoming size limit was set too low, resulting in submissions not getting through. Before long, applicants faced significant delays to their renewals.
It’s here – around the summer of 2019 – that things started getting dicey. As we continued working to ensure our customers could quickly extract the evidence they needed straight from the Assure360 system, we began hearing horror stories. Many renewals were dragging on for weeks longer than expected, with some LARCs even coming perilously close to having their licence lapse – with the potential risk of losing their business as a result.
Figures compiled by ACAD backup what we were hearing at the time. Over 2018-19 the HSE refused just two licence renewals. During 2019-20 this shot up to 14. Perhaps more significantly, there’s been an acceleration in the falling number of licensed contractors. In the three years from April 2016 to April 2019, the number of LARCs dipped by 6%. There’s been a further 6% fall in just the last 12 months.
While it’s hard to attribute these figures entirely to changes in the licensing system – especially considering the backdrop of Brexit uncertainty and an underperforming economy – anecdotal evidence suggests they were the major component.
The LARCs’ view
Among LARCs we’ve spoken to, Luke Gumbley, director of Emchia, had a fairly typical experience.
“I completed the online form from start to finish. It took me about four weeks, and I think I’d still be there now if it wasn’t for Assure360,” he says. “There were a few teething issues at the start of the new HSE process because their communication wasn’t the best, and I think over the first few months it was hard for applicants to know what evidence to present, and how to present it.”
Discover how we help Luke achieve the high standards he wants to be known for – read the Emchia case study.
Luke’s experience is typical of the kind of feedback we were getting, as customers tried to get their head around the new system in its early days. As another customer drily observed: “Change management is an art in itself.”
“What they’re trying to do is replace one or two days’ interviews with government inspectors with the information that LARCs now have to provide. And because the system’s still in its infancy, it’s not brilliant. For example: it’s not a portal you’re uploading to – you’re just emailing them.”
Many of the LARCs we’ve spoken to are in favour of the online renewals, but figures from ACAD show that they’re in the minority. While 19% prefer the new system, an overwhelming 44% say that it’s worse. There’s broader support for specific changes, however, with 37% agreeing that the new fixed three-year term is an improvement over the previous one, two or three years.
Perhaps surprisingly, some of those who experienced the new system at its most challenging are among its supporters. “While I was doing it I thought it was the worst thing in the world,” says Luke Gumbley. “Now I’m done I’ve come around on the new system. It’s helped me understand my business more and given me confidence that we’re doing exactly what’s required.”
The HSE’s view
While we speak with LARCs daily, we’re also fortunate enough to enjoy good relations with key figures within the regulator. Informal conversations revealed the HSE’s view on how the trial had gone, what could be learned, and what comes next.
A specific challenge that the HSE has experienced is the difficulty LARCs had with organising the email responses in a logical manner. This was compounded by the huge variation in the documents they used for evidence.
Obviously, the HSE can’t commercially endorse anyone, but our clients have found that we can help with this. With nearly 20% of the industry using our solution, one in five applications will be submitted on a very familiar form.
However, the ALU team recognise that LARCs are businesses, and as such they can’t give 100% of their focus to the renewal. It’s accepted that poor communication and a lack of empathy have been issues. Greater efforts are being made by the HSE to address this, but LARCs also need to improve. Our conversations revealed that many of the ALU’s emails and telephone calls go unanswered as the HSE follow up applications. Their message is to make sure that you provide the best methods of contacting you. My message is to check your spam folder!
Questions of competence
One specific area of concern for the HSE during the trial was LARCs’ wider understanding of hazards beyond asbestos. The specific example given was an apparent misunderstanding of the confined space guidance that came across during one review.
This echoes one of my concerns: that we as an industry can be too focused on the risk posed by the deadly substance we manage, sometimes to the extent that we ignore greater or more immediate dangers. I recently discussed how we, as asbestos professionals, can be blinkered when we think about risk – you can read that article here.
What’s the situation now?
The current COVID-19 crisis notwithstanding, we’ve now entered a period of more stability. The ALU sees the trial as a success, though it recognises that there has been a very steep learning curve for everyone. The trial has now ended, and the new system is the reality for all applicants.
Since autumn 2019, things have generally begun to look up. The HSE’s communication has improved, and guidance on what the HSE expects is much clearer. Today there’s far more support for LARCs as they enter the process, and we’re hearing that for most customers, renewal times are far more reasonable.
We’ve a history of supporting customers through HSE licence renewals, so we’re proud that we were able to help from day one of the new system. We worked hard to introduce and perfect a new, dedicated licensing module, so it’s rewarding that so many of the people we’ve spoken to have cited Assure360 as a major help during the turbulence of the last 12 months.
“Assure quickly enables you to extract the information which will help prove that you are complying with the HSE’s licensing criteria,” explains Clinton Moore, director of Sperion.
“When the HSE asks, for example, ‘Can you demonstrate how you carried out an audit and found something wrong, and what you did about that error and how you applied the training?’, Assure lets you record those processes and do a very simple print out to prove what those processes were and how they were completed.”
Discover how we help Sperion streamline its paperwork and extract more meaning from its site safety data. Read the Sperion case study
Phil Neville, operations director at Asbestech, agrees: “Assure360 makes it very simple to demonstrate to the HSE that we are collecting personal exposure information… and that management see and review it regularly. We can show that we use the information from it to identify trends, but also to identify our anticipated exposure levels – which we need to draw up our method statements.”
“The HSE has stated that they expect licensed asbestos-removal contractors to be ‘exemplary’. Assure360 helps us demonstrate that we are.” Read the Asbestech case study
For Emchia’s Luke Gumbley, the benefits of Assure360 extend beyond the software system itself. “With Assure360 the information I needed was at the tip of my fingers. I leaned on the Assure360 team, asking where the information was and how to present it, and they were great – even sending me links to the actual information for my business, which I could then share with the HSE.”
From our discussions with the HSE, customers and our professional bodies, it’s clear that there’s widespread support for the new system. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t still without its flaws.
As I discussed during my recent appearance on the Asbestos Knowledge Empire podcast, there’s a sense that LARCs may previously have benefited from the ‘whites of their eyes’ experience of being grilled in person by HSE inspectors. Anyone who’s been through it will know it can be a daunting process, likely to expose businesses who aren’t completely on top of their processes and record-keeping.
There’s work to be done on the submission process, which still relies on email. The regulator’s ultimate goal is for a portal through which LARCs can upload all their evidence, but developing it is very much a resource-led decision and it could be some way off. In the meantime, careful use of Dropbox should help the process.
Other elements of the experience are already better. The guidance has evolved with a narrowing of the required evidence – the HSE has now been much more specific as to what it wants to see. There is also now a clear timetable to follow. You will get the invitation to reapply for your licence four months ahead of its expiry date.
COVID-19 permitting, the HSE has a 10-week deadline from start to finish, with a commitment to get the decision to you at least 2 weeks before the end. This process includes an admin check, the review itself and a buffer in the middle. So the message for LARCs is to count back from your licence expiry date:
- Two week minimum notification for asbestos projects
- 10-week HSE review process
This totals 12 weeks, leaving you only three – four weeks to reply to the invitation, pay the invoice, assemble all the evidence and submit the application. But there is no reason why you can’t be ready ahead of time – you’ll be only too aware of your licence renewal date, so assemble much of the evidence before you get the letter.
Overall, there’s a sense that while the industry has taken a step forward, not everything has improved under the new system. And for those LARCs who found themselves at the forefront of the trial, there was little in the way of support through what for some was a bruising and costly experience. But if the pain of change management was disproportionately borne by one half of the participants, it does at least seem that many lessons have been learned. The next phase of licence assessments will be much easier.
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