What are we to make of the UK Contractors Group mandating ConstructionSkills’ Site Management Safety Training Scheme for staff working for its 34 member companies? In the first place, there’s plenty to commend in last February’s move. The UKCG sees it as part of a drive to raise safety performance, and there’s evidence that SMSTS does just that. Dr Billy Hare FCIOB of Glasgow Caledonian University refers to a study that looked at the five-day SMSTS in comparison to a one-day safety course and a more substantial qualification, such as the NEBOSH Construction Certificate. All three raised safety standards, but the biggest improvement came with SMSTS. And at 24 years old, SMSTS has stood the test of time.
But it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and that’s what’s happened with the SMSTS. In 1979, it probably stood alone: now it exists alongside the CSCS system but isn’t in any way aligned with it. It also co-exists with other construction health and safety qualifications such as NEBOSH and CIOB diplomas, but the mandate raises its status above all others that individuals hold. So the UKCG’s stance forces individuals to double qualify and so adds cost and inefficiency, but also thickens the mist around which cards and qualifications are needed to work on site.
But it also looks like its “UKCG minimum standard” status is influencing employers outside the UKCG to adopt the SMSTS as a requirement while disregarding more challenging alternatives, thereby de-incentivising the pursuit of professional qualifications. And in the current economic climate, a growing group of freelance construction professionals are moving from one short-term contract to another. Whereas once they could expect new employers to pick up the costs of an SMSTS course, now it’s viewed as the jobseeker’s responsibility. For these freelancers, the overheads implicit in the SMSTS mandate have been shifted onto them.
Then there’s strong suggestion of a variable standard in the course itself. The members we’ve spoken to might have had particularly bad experiences, but it’s harder to explain away the views of the anonymous SMSTS training provider (see page 15). These views are reinforced by searching “SMSTS” on Google, revealing multiple training providers offering courses every week of the year, with pass rates of 97% . And where there’s a must-have product enjoying a hike in demand — as with the UKCG mandate — it would be surprising if every trainer delivered to the high standards the UKCG no doubt expects.
According to ConstructionSkills, which writes the syllabus and audits the training providers, 50,000 people sat the SMSTS test last year. That includes individuals taking the five-day initial course, and the two-day refresher, which must be passed every five years for the SMSTS certificate to remain valid. ConstructionSkills agrees that there has been an uptake in demand since the UKCG mandate, but is unable to say how much.
The HSE is hoping that the industry will take a long hard, look at the whole issue of health and safety “competence” cards and qualifications. It has been concerned about this since publication of the Pye Tait Review in September 2011, which it commissioned with ConstructionSkills. That report came exactly when UKCG was consulting with the industry about its Training Standard (although, by its own admission, it didn’t consult the CIOB). When the evidence about confusion was there in front of them, it’s a pity the UKCG and ConstructionSkills apparently failed to think this through.
There is now a second opportunity to review the situation. And that should surely conclude that while we need properly accredited and monitored SMSTS courses and encouragement for contractors to use them, it doesn’t need the UKCG appointing itself as a health and safety regulator.