Assure 360

Last month, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) unleashed absolute chaos. For those that don’t know what happened, I’ll summarise…

 The HSE has become concerned about the quality of some training – and very concerned about the effectiveness of some RPE (respiratory protective equipment) face-fit testing (FFT). The regulator suspects even that in some cases, training and FFTs were not actually being done – just the certificate issued. Due to the criticality of a good FFT, it instructed the Asbestos Network members to share this concern with the world.

Where this got highly controversial is that the HSE issued a statement naming two training organisations of which it was particularly suspicious. And even worse, the first of these two was misnamed: the organisation’s acronym didn’t match its full name, which in turn was completely wrong – and a totally different organisation. No evidence was provided, so there was little for the relevant accrediting bodies to investigate.

 From the outside, it didn’t seem like the appropriate way for the HSE to raise or deal with its concerns. But a colleague of mine more involved summed it up more directly: ‘It’s a proper screw-up’.

 But as the dust settles, it’s important not to lose sight of the core concern here. For a very long time there have been rumours that training, FFT, mask maintenance certificates and even medicals can be and routinely are ‘forged’. I’ve personally not seen any hard evidence to this effect, but I’ve heard the suspicions of supervisors: “he’s never been trained in his life”, and “remote training sessions are too easy to pass – so what value is there in them?”.

The other week I came across a medical certificate for an operative who had been working on site all week in the south of England, but who had somehow managed to pop up to the North-East for his medical without missing a shift. Was this evidence of fraud? Actually no, as with some digging it turned out that the occupational health centre was providing medicals over the phone. This approach was brought in as an emergency measure in COVID and was withdrawn years ago. Not fraud, but certainly shocking.

 Despite the naming issue, the HSE has not withdrawn its statement, so certificates from the two named organisations (and presumably the misnamed one too) should continue to face additional scrutiny. What this translates to is that a licensed asbestos removal contractor (LARC) must conduct extra competence assessments on employees with these certificates. The press release didn’t offer suggestions on how we should approach the FFT, but I understand that the labour supply agencies themselves are ensuring all staff under their wings are being re-tested.

Elephants in the room 

This event should serve as a catalyst for the industry to reexamine testing more thoroughly, and ensure it’s delivering the high standards of protection that asbestos removal demands. For even when training is actually done – and done to a high standard – it’s fair to ask whether a three-day, new operative course should be enough to allow someone to work under challenging conditions with a carcinogen. In fact I think you’d struggle to find anyone to enthusiastically support this idea.

For those that can remember, labour supply agencies used to be licence holders, and were effectively employers for a stable of workers. Maintaining a licence is not an easy thing – it takes care, attention to detail and commitment. A good agency would be seen as a partner for a LARC and, if they could provide reliable staff that were competent, they would be able to command loyalty from their customers. Their licence would be precious, and they would have an incentive to train, assess and generally look after good staff.

This all changed in 2013, when they were removed from the licensing regime, and anyone could start up a labour supply agency without any checks and balances. The HSE’s argument was that they didn’t care where a LARC got its staff, providing the LARC ensured their competence. No thought was put into how the LARC might do this, particularly for workers who might only be with them for a couple of days. This has led to a lot more labour supply agencies, but the same pool of short-term workers (STW), who are self-employed people in their own right. 

There are good, dedicated agencies out there that endeavour to provide top quality staff, but there are also some that are very, very poor. The pay rates for all site staff are historically low, and therefore a bump of £5 per day has become enough for a worker to move. When demand outstrips supply, it also becomes a seller’s market. Desperate employers and desperate agencies need bodies on site, and sometimes that’s achieved no matter the competence.

We have created a market where the individual worker is the customer, and loyalty to the LARC or the agency is for mugs.

For the trainers, RPE Face Fit providers, and mask maintainers, the customer is now often the individual STW, and time has become a huge premium for these self-employed people.  Anything that keeps them off-site for a shift can represent a significant loss of income. The incentives are obvious, and help explain the rise of the online refresher course, rather than face-to-face training.

If we think a little on how this incentive could twist the market it is a short leap to questions such as: ‘how quick can the training be?’, ‘do I need a FFT every year?’, ‘this second hand mask looks alright – how do I get a maintenance certificate?’, ‘have you heard that NE doctor is still doing medicals by post?’. It’s the result of the pure free market meeting safety-critical requirements – and we are where we are.

The cliff edge 

Online and remote training became essential during the pandemic, and it seems they’re here to stay. In the right circumstances, they can be exactly what is needed. My understanding of the HSE’s current position on it is that such refresher courses can be suitable for experienced workers, if supported by the employer’s training needs analysis (TNA), i.e. an employer, having thoroughly assessed their worker, deems that they only need a light-touch refresher. This seems eminently logical to me. However, the obvious implication of this is that it is not suitable for self-sponsored, self-employed agency staff, as they don’t have an employer to assess them and perform a TNA.

Things are about to get a lot worse. On many major construction sites, individuals need Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) cards to demonstrate a basic level of safety training and awareness. These are backed up by NVQs, and these qualifications have lots more checks and balances. Evidence of a candidate’s competence is recorded, and there’s auditing of both the individual assessor and the training provider by the awarding body. They also represent a huge time commitment for both the worker and their employer.

As NVQs were initially a new concept in the asbestos industry, temporary red ‘trained’ cards were made available for workers who had no NVQ and only the traditional three-day training course. Fifty thousand of these non-renewable cards have been issued, and all of them will expire by the end of 2024. The only route for these red card holders to get black or gold cards is to complete an NVQ. That’s quite a commitment even for a full-time employed worker, and seemingly inconceivable for the self-employed.

If I try to look at this impending cliff edge with some optimism, the only thing I can come up with is that, once we’ve fallen off, the few employees available might at least be of a high standard. What it could mean for the already tight labour situation hardly bears thinking about.

How do we fix the problem?

Whilst the HSE’s intervention seems ill thought through, it has forced us to look at the current situation, which is dire. What’s the solution? I’m not sure anyone knows, and certainly I don’t, but something clearly needs to be done.

Graham Warren of the Asbestos and Environmental Safety Association (ASESA) has called for a complete reset of the training environment. In his vision, all of the training organisations (ASESA, ARCA, ACAD, IATP and UKATA) would get together and collaboratively decide what training and competence should look like. This agreed competency framework could then be followed by all. This kind of fundamental action seems to me like an excellent place to start.

It does seem inescapable that remote training will have to be part of the mix – but it is not suitable for everyone. That is one of the many fundamental questions such a collaborative re-assessment has to answer. What does training and competence look like for our sector? What is the right training for a given individual? How do they learn? What will they engage with?

If online refreshers aren’t suitable for the self-sponsored worker, then how do we make the new environment work for this critical pool of staff? Should we consider bringing back licences for labour supply agencies, and so recreate trusted ‘employers’ with skin in the game? Again, I don’t know, but we desperately need to look at the whole problem with honesty.

Wherever there is money, there will be bad actors prepared to cut corners for profit. But the new system should at least be designed so that most of the human nature levers are pushing us in the right direction. It is, after all, a fundamental matter of workers’ safety.

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"It's immediately apparent if there are any trends I need to look at, if there's any particular processes that have gone awry, or if there are individuals we need to coach."
Phil Neville, Operations Director, Asbestech,