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    SECURING CONSTRUCTION HEALTH & SAFETY COMPETENCE

    Competence report stresses situational awareness and role of supervisors

    The issue ‘competence’ has been central to improving health and safety performance in the construction sector since the late 1980s. 

    To evaluate progress since 2001 HSE commission research into the routes to competence available to non-professional, site-based roles in the industry. A report on the research has now been published.

    Key questions addressed in the research were:

    • are current routes to competence adequate for the construction sector; and
    • is our understanding of what makes a worker ‘competent’ sufficiently robust for current-day needs.

    Competence in the sector is evidenced directly by competence-based qualifications or indirectly by a plethora of card and passport schemes.

    The research highlights other safety-critical industries that require ‘job competence’, enhanced health and safety awareness and ‘human factors’.

    The report concludes that current understanding of ‘competence’ in the construction sector may warrant extension to develop an ‘industry-specific’ definition and broadening to encompass both situational awareness and the sustaining of appropriate behaviours.

    The summary of findings from the report are reproduced below (bold text added)

    Summary of findings
    1. The penetration of competence-based qualifications into key construction occupations remains incomplete. It is particularly low in some key risk areas notably, unskilled workers and site supervisory and managerial occupations.
    2. The system of card/safety passport schemes for evidencing competence remains confused, fragmented and complex. It is based on varying and sometimes incompatible criteria, may be very expensive to sustain, and may well incur additional costs of duplication. Examples of existing routes to competence that exhibit strengths and good practice could include IRATA and the CPCS scheme. The EUSkills Register database appears to be a comprehensive and easy to use system coordinating all the main utility industry training, certification and safety passport schemes in a single register.
    3. The plethora of card schemes is of extremely doubtful and inconsistent value in helping the industry’s companies to judge competence. While some cards and safety passport schemes reflect and evidence a good standard of job and H&S competence (and some even require and evidence behavioural ability as well) it is extremely difficult for employers to be fully aware, retain and monitor the competence-related strengths and weakness of all cards and passports.
    4. The NOS and NVQ-based system of qualifications with its very highly specified sets of criteria, while reflecting basic occupational competence and health and safety knowledge, is insufficiently broad to meet the needs identified in this report for extensive behavioural and attitudinal knowledge and skills.
    5. The skill and knowledge aspects of competence in the industry may have been constrained by the NVQ approach which essentially does not have the current ability to test these important attitudinal and situational skills. With the exception of certain taught courses there is nothing at present available for the industry which develops these skills on an ongoing basis. From the point of view of cost-effectiveness, the report concludes that only extensive training and mentoring by site supervisors and managers will achieve this.
    6. Under the existing system of NOS, health and safety is approached as a “skill with underpinning knowledge” that, once evidenced for the award of a specific qualification, need never be re-evidenced. Primarily because, at the moment, there is no established understanding of how competence can be regularly re-assessed except through some sort of “licence to practise” system.
    7. A major aspect, although by no means the only one, in behavioural and attitudinal awareness, is the concept of ‘out of context’ skills. The greatest levels of risk are associated with employees working outside their “occupational” area of competence (for example a labourer asked to undertake work on a roof, or a bricklayer suddenly transferred to a different site). As this report shows a large proportion of fatal and serious incidents in the construction sector occur when an operative is working outside of their normal context of work. In these cases the need for situational awareness and personal responsibility for risk assessment and management is extremely important.
    8. Emerging and recent evidence that considerations of behaviours to limit risks underpinning a safety culture is a necessary way forward, major contractors are using this with success to effect significant reductions in incidents: for example the DWP case study (see Annex 5).
    9. The report clearly shows that the greatest areas of risk in the construction industry at present are to those, working at height and working with, and in the environment of, construction plant, especially vehicles. The industry is also having to focus more and more on its incidence of ill-health. Consideration should therefore be given to introducing specialist qualifications for ‘health and safety’ (including situational awareness) of working at height, working with and around construction plant and working to prevent ill health.
    10. The existing understanding of “competence” as being occupational knowledge and skill plus health and safety awareness should now be extended as quickly as possible to include ongoing development of operative’s situational awareness and immediate risk assessment and management capabilities. We have termed this the “New Competence” but its precepts are already being applied by many organisations in the sector.
    11. Embedding the New Competence requires a step-change in the sector’s understanding of what competence is and how it is developed; a move from a “once and for all” approach to one of “continuous competence development” (applying to both occupational and behavioural competences). This can only cost-effectively be achieved by developing and mandating appropriate qualifications and training for supervisory and site manager roles which focus on human factors mentoring and supervision.

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