Are we closer to defining competence?

By Jonathan O’Neill OBE, Managing Director of the Fire Protection Association (FPA)

For many years, the FPA has been lobbying government for a clearer definition of competency. Sadly, it was the tragedy at Grenfell Tower in 2017 which brought the issue of competency to the fore. The subsequent Hackitt Review highlighted the major gaps in terms of the skills, experience and knowledge of those involved with the building’s construction.

The Grenfell fire was the result of years of fire safety neglect, not just by government from severely lacking Building Regulations, but by abusers of the system in the construction industry and suppliers of building products. This was also not an isolated event and had been preceded by similarly tragic fires, not only in multi-storey residential buildings such as Grenfell but in all other types of high-risk buildings. Following the tragedy, we have seen numerous ‘near misses’ where fires have broken out in premises such as hotels, care homes and hotels. So we must ask, – has progress really been made when it comes to fire safety in the UK?

Moving competency forward post Grenfell

The Hackitt Review was a significant piece of work and, following Grenfell, recommended a more robust approach to managing higher risk residential buildings (HRRBs). The review has put greater pressure on the construction industry and pushed for individuals to increase their understanding of fire risks, as well as the importance of using the appropriate materials and systems to maximise safety. The important point here is around accountability – an area that we must see legislation address properly and fully if we are to increase the safety of our buildings. Accountability cannot simply be passed down the supply chain as we’ve seen happen historically– and the Hackitt Review’s identification of the need for “dutyholders” was a welcome first step in clearly identifying roles and responsibilities.

Following this, the Competence Steering Group (CSG) – a cross industry body backed by the government, the Industry Safety Steering Group (ISSG), Dame Judith Hackitt and representing over 150 organisations – also released its report, 'Setting the Bar: a new competence regime for building a safer future', in October. This provided a blueprint for improving competency and outlines requirements of the Building Safety Manager role, which is set to be brought into legislation through the Building Safety Bill.

The CSG’s report has quite correctly been broadly welcomed, however the size of the task at hand is significant. An ISSG report from 2020 identified a “lack of widespread, proactive” leadership on building safety. The FPA’s own research found that over a fifth of those responsible for fire safety in a building don’t check the competency of contractors to do a job – although we believe the problem is actually far worse than the data suggests.

The proposed competency framework set out in the Setting the Bar report is made up of the following key elements:

  • a new competence committee sitting within the Building Safety Regulator
  • a national suite of competence standards – including new sector-specific frameworks developed by 12 working groups
  • arrangements for independent assessment and reassessment against the competence standards
  • a mechanism to ensure that those assessing and certifying people against the standards have appropriate levels of oversight

What does competency mean?

While events such as Grenfell have shone a light on the levels of competency within the industry, there is currently still no consistent definition of what competency means, which makes holding people accountable much more difficult.

Both Dame Judith Hackitt and the subsequent Setting the Bar report have suggested that the idea of competence must be relevant to the individual workplace and situation, however this does not take away from the fact that individuals must have the sufficient training and experience or knowledge that allow them to act within best practice, should a fire occur.

At the FPA we believe that to be truly competent, an individual or product must be assessed by an accredited third party.

The competency pillars to live by

The actions of virtually everyone involved in the construction sector can impact on the vulnerability of a building to fire and that is why we believe it is vital that the entire sector ensures they are taking the appropriate action to minimise the risk of fire in the building. Below we outline the FPA’s six key competency pillars.

  1. Specialist work being third party approved – this means being on a register which is independently verified via a UKAS accredited scheme.
  2. Trustworthy – the responsibility of anyone involved in the fire safety of a building is high. They must be trusted to do the right thing by the organisation or building, the people within it and the law.
  3. Self-aware – knowing the limits of a person’s own competency means knowing when to turn a job down because they don’t yet have the relevant experience or skillset.
  4. Good knowledge and application – it’s very important that you ensure your knowledge has come from reputable sources, whether this is from training, online research or other competent persons in the trade. Always ensure your knowledge is from a valid source - you must then be able to apply this knowledge appropriately to the situation and the building.
  5. Demonstrable experience – when undertaking work in high-risk environments such hospitals or other care settings, it is important that all involved can demonstrate experience in such areas.
  6. Committed to, and actively engaged in, continued professional development (CPD) – the road to competency is a long one. Legislation, buildings, businesses and their use are changing constantly. Sourcing ways to stay up to date on current issues, trends and legal requirements is an essential part of competency.

For more information on third party accreditation and the resources available to those working within the construction industry please visit our Know Your Building campaign page.