OHS Canada Magazine

Raising the Bar

Construction sites are dangerous workplaces with some of the highest on-the-job injuries and fatalities. The National Construction Safety Officer program, administered by provincial construction-safety associations, certifies individuals who have practical knowledge in various construction-related health- and safety-management skills. But some are questioning the credibility of this entry-level certification and whether it undermines the overall standard of the safety profession.


One of the key concerns surrounding the National Construction Safety Officer (NCSO) program is whether the training offered, combined with an individual’s field experience, is rigorous enough to equip safety officers with practical knowledge to identify and tackle hazards on a work site.

Dave Rebbitt, president and owner of Rarebit Consulting in Fort McMurray, Alberta, claims that until recently, the Alberta Construction Safety Association (ACSA) was promoting the view that its NCSO designation was a premier certification on par with that of the Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP). Thanks to a recent change in leadership, he says, the association is starting to examine its standards.

“This whole thing is about businesses demanding safety professionals we just can’t produce,” Rebbitt says. “The demand for safety has far outstripped the ability of any college or professional designation to supply it. Their effectiveness is being questioned, because their training is so rudimentary.”

But those in the line of fire maintain that the NCSO designation is simply a starting point for those who want to get a foothold in the safety profession and not meant to compete with higher-standard credentials like the CRSP. “The NCSO is an entry-level point for safety professionals,” says Dan MacLennan, executive director with the ACSA in Edmonton. “We have thousands take our training every month just to be up on safety.”

Edmonton-based safety consultant Keith Adams agrees. “Compared to an NCSO, the CRSP is like a Master’s degree.”

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The CRSP designation is considered a benchmark in the oh&s profession and the designation of choice for safety professionals in Canada. Many employers prefer or require applicants of workplace safety positions to hold the CRSP designation, particularly for mid-career and senior positions, notes information from the Board of Canadian Registered Safety Professionals (BCRSP) in Mississauga, Ontario.

The ACSA, which bestows the highest number of NCSO certifications in Canada, offers the NCSO program and other safety training to roughly 20 classes of students a day at eight locations across the province. “To compare to the CRSP designation is not something we do,” says Tammy Hawkins, ACSA’s learning services director. “We don’t see them as the same thing.”

She clarifies that the criticism levelled against the NCSO title is largely a result of confusion around the designations among those who are hiring — not the associations offering the courses.

“If you are working in the industry, you will see job ads all the time advertising for someone with an NCSO or CRSP designation,” explains Hawkins, who holds both designations, in addition to the Canadian Construction Association’s (CCA) Gold Seal and an oh&s certificate from the University of Alberta. “I know they are worlds apart, and so does anyone who has pursued either or both of them. But the person advertising potentially doesn’t, so this is where we get into trouble.”

Paul Casey, vice-president of programs and strategic development with the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association (IHSA) in Mississauga, Ontario, thinks that criticisms against the NCSO and similar accreditations are misguided. “It is blaming the program for an outcome related more to poor hiring practices,” Casey says. “In any hiring practice, you would validate knowledge and expectations of the role — that would be my first response to any of this. I wouldn’t take their word on a resume.”

 

The Genesis

Alberta is the birthplace of the NCSO designation, which was developed in the early ’90s to provide general safety knowledge to those who were employed in the construction sector. An NCSO certification allows one to work as a safety officer anywhere in Canada, and candidates must have at least three years of field experience in the construction industry.

For certification purposes, field experience is defined as experience gained through employment as a construction worker, foreman, health and safety coordinator or any individual who actively works in construction on a full-time basis. Fulfillment of the experience requirement must be verified by a letter from a current or past employer or a construction-related trade union.

Candidates of the NCSO program are required to complete 13 courses, comprising 11 compulsory courses and two electives. The compulsory courses include classes in principles of health and safety management, leadership for safety excellence, construction safety administration and first aid. Elective courses encompass alcohol, drugs and safety, back-injury prevention, construction environmental awareness, fall-protection planning and hazard management, according to information from the ACSA.

Following NCSO certification, safety practitioners could pursue a certificate program in a university, followed by a diploma program, which is a two-year degree. The CRSP is the highest national designation for safety generalists.

Bruce Collins, executive director of the Nova Scotia Construction Safety Association in Dartmouth, points out that two decades ago, professional safety certifications were few and far between. “Now there is a market and demand, because laws have changed and put greater onus on workers and owners.”

 

Quantity or Quality

According to Statistics Canada, the construction sector accounted for nearly seven per cent of Canada’s total workforce between 2000 and 2010, yet data collected by Rebbitt show that it was responsible for nearly 31.5 per cent of traumatic workplace fatalities over the same period. In 2010, that number rose to more than 38 per cent.

Most Canadian provinces offer construction safety-related certifications other than the NCSO. They include the Construction Health and Safety Officer certification by the IHSA and the Construction Safety Coordinator credential offered by the CCA’s Gold Seal certification program, notes Don Sayers, chief executive officer and oh&s team leader at Don Sayers and Associates in Fredericton, New Brunswick — a consulting firm that provides safety management and training solutions.

Other professional designations include those for nurses, hygienists, ergonomists and more. All these professions require minimum post-secondary schooling, on top of a mandatory professional examination administered by the respective professional association, which is a separate entity from the training provider.

A few years ago, Rebbitt decided to study if the rapid growth in safety practitioners was having a positive effect on workplace safety in North America and the United Kingdom. The findings of his 2012 Master of Business Administration thesis, entitled The Value Proposition of the Safety Professional, were quite puzzling: workplace fatalities were statistically flat, or rising in cases like the construction industry, although there were more safety practitioners than ever before.

From 2000 to 2010, the number of Canadian workers in health and safety doubled to nearly 32,000. In Alberta, there were 21 construction fatalities in 2000 (excluding occupational illness and diseases); by 2013, that number had climbed to 26. Yet Alberta has the highest density of people working in health and safety in North America, with approximately 339 safety practitioners per 100,000 workers in 2011. Of those workers, just one in 17 is a CRSP, compared to the national average of one in eight.

“CRSPs are less effective in preventing traumatic fatalities in Alberta, perhaps because they are so grossly outnumbered by practitioners with little formal training at a ratio of 17 practitioners for every CRSP working in a frontline safety role,” Rebbitt suggests.

On the other hand, Ontario’s density of safety professionals is in the middle of the pack, but shows the strongest correlation between the number of safety practitioners and reduction in workplace fatalities.

“British Columbia has one of the lowest densities of CRSPs, but has the second-highest fatality rate in Canada,” Rebbitt notes, adding that raising the number of CRSPs would help reduce workplace fatalities in that province.

Citing two high-profile cases in Ontario — the 2012 cave-in of a mall’s roof in Elliot Lake and the 2009 Christmas Eve scaffolding collapse in Toronto — that have prompted lawsuits against the provincial labour ministry over the competence of safety officers, Rebbitt thinks that legal action may give rise to a trend in which the public increasingly questions the competence of safety inspectors.

“Those who are supposed to be the gatekeepers, in many cases, may not be demonstrably competent in a way that would satisfy any court. This situation is in large part attributable to the large number of ‘certifications’ being given out by safety associations and others looking to make a buck, coupled with employers who do not know any better,” he suggests. “It is difficult to demonstrate competence to anyone when all you can say is, ‘I took some seminars,’ or ‘I have a lot of experience.’ Imagine if your airline pilot told you that.”

 

Voices of Dissent

Critics of the NCSO program say the fact that the certification body is typically the same organization that administers the certification and conducts the training presents a conflict of interest, which takes a toll on the certification’s credibility. “You are buying a credential from someone selling it,” Sayers contends.

But Collins questions that line of argument. “That would be the same as going to Dalhousie University and getting an education degree and being upset, because Dalhousie teaches and administers the degree,” he illustrates. “As a complaint, it is not logical.”

Collins says the NCSO certification is designed for foremen and supervisors responsible for safety in the construction sector, in addition to other responsibilities. “It is meant to supplement a supervisor’s skills. Not every employer in the world has more than 20 employees. There are more employers that employ 19 or less and a whole range that employ 10 or less, so they are not likely to have a safety officer on staff.” As a result, owners or supervisors in these firms often wear the safety hats themselves.

Another bone of contention regarding provincial safety-designation programs stems from the fact that participants in many of these programs are not required to write final exams at the end of their multi-course programs, which include mandatory and elective courses averaging around two weeks each.

The remuneration of NCSOs also comes into play. A 2013 BCRSP salary report shows that the median salary for CRSPs hovers in the $80,000 range, and nearly 50 per cent of respondents reported salaries above $100,000. On the other hand, NCSOs can earn $30 to $60 an hour. Factor in overtime and shift premiums, and an NCSO can easily command a pay cheque of $80,000 or more per year in Alberta upon obtaining certification.

But unlike in other parts of Canada, such as the Atlantic provinces, economics drives employers’ preference for NCSOs. “Employers are saying, ‘I want to hire an NCSO,’” Sayers says. “They are thinking, ‘Why would I pay big bucks for a CRSP generalist when I can get an NCSO for less?’”

Add to that the fact that some employers have difficulty differentiating an NCSO from a CRSP, and “this is one of the biggest issues facing the profession today,” Rebbitt says.

Sayers thinks that most practising safety professionals working in a pan-Canadian context regard the NCSO designation as in the same league as that of a construction safety officer (CSO) or a construction safety specialist and other similar provincial credentials.

“Virtually every province now has a construction safety association, and they all recognize the cash flow available from creating their own ‘unique’ construction safety moniker,” Sayers suggests. “Alberta has had the deepest pockets and has therefore built a broader curriculum,” he comments, “but not necessarily deeper. And by attaching the preface ‘national’ to the ‘construction safety officer’ title, they have created the mythology that their offering is somehow truly pan-Canadian.”

But Collins takes exception to the criticism that provincially-designated safety programs, such as those offered in Nova Scotia, are profit-driven. “My job is not to get up in the morning and train more people than I trained yesterday.” Rather, it is to ensure that the association’s member employers have access to province-wide services at a reasonable and fair cost, he says.

Darryl Braaten, managing director with Xi Safety Inc. in Calgary, Alberta, points to the pressures of the province’s booming economy as a motivating force behind some workers’ misrepresentation of their construction experience, embellishment of the breadth and length of their experience, or both. “I have seen kids who were slopping pizza, and they have someone fabricate their construction experience and then get their diploma with little or no understanding of what they are faced with when they get in the industry.”

Braaten thinks that the NCSO title needs to be redefined as a trade-safety certification to appropriately reflect it as an entry-level credential. Unlike electricians who must complete a fixed number of hours before getting their journeyman’s tickets, “we are cranking kids out in 14 days in the NCSO,” he cautions. “All it does is give you enough information to make you dangerous.”

 

Substance Matters

Braaten’s observation of inexperienced safety practitioners being thrown in the middle of a construction site with experienced tradespersons is not uncommon. Private consultants say this often results in more experienced tradespersons disregarding the advice — right or wrong — of the less experienced safety practitioner.

Scott Casano, senior health and safety consultant with Casco Safety Consulting Services in Vancouver, relates an incident on a job site last spring in northern British Columbia where an NCSO misidentified a piece of equipment, causing management to arrive at the wrong area of the job site. Upon describing the location at which management was supposed to show up, the NCSO said, “It is near those big diggy things,” in reference to 100,000-pound excavators.

Like Braaten, Casano believes that the NCSO title is a misnomer, implying that the person holding the designation is a full-on safety expert.

Edmonton-based safety consultant Keith Adams notes that he would like to see NCSO-like programs revised to be more in line with three- and four-year journeyman programs for tradespersons, such as electricians and pipefitters. “It needs to be changed because as it stands now, we are hurting as many today as we were five years ago,” Adams says. “Green workers are sent out to the field, and they are not fully prepared, and that has a lot to do with the fast pace of work we are into now.”

Bruce Stevens, regional manager for the Applied Science Technologists and Technicians of British Columbia (ASTTBC) in Surrey, could not agree more. The ASTTBC offers a three-tiered certification program that allows members to work towards a career in construction safety. All new certification holders begin as “provisional” to ensure that they understand the difference between belonging to an industry association and belonging to a professional association in which they are held accountable. By accumulating experience and meeting annual continuing-education requirements, members can apply to be reclassified as a full CSO and, eventually, hold the senior title of a registered CSO.

As the only professional association governed under provincial statute in Canada that awards a construction safety certification, the ASTTBC is independent of any industry or construction association. Construction safety practitioners awarded certification by the ASTTBC must meet clear and defined academic-competency and learning-outcome standards in 35 subject areas from a CSO training course, delivered by trainers accredited and audited by the ASTTBC.

“If I am an employer, I want to engage a safety officer who is not only up-to-date and involved in continual learning, but also is committed to what ethical practice means,” Stevens says. “Also, I want the safety person I hire to have the added risk-protection insurances if working on a contract basis.”

He recommends that employers in British Columbia looking to fill CSO positions check candidates’ current certification identification cards issued by the ASTTBC. “If they produce it, then that person is a CSO. If they do not, they will not bring with them those critical elements only available via membership in a professional association. The issue of credibility is distinctly clear.”

For Hawkins, the criticism that the ACSA and other provincial associations are in the business of turning profits on the backs of students and industry members is nothing short of hurtful. “It could cause people who would benefit from our extremely affordable training to not pursue it. We partner with industry in our common goal of better protecting the health and safety of our workers. Our one-day cost is $60 for members and $75 for associate members,” she says, claiming that she knows of private companies charging much higher fees than provincial associations.

Hawkins reports that the ACSA is looking at implementing more stringent standards in both evaluation and experience requirements. One of the options being considered is changing the NCSO title to that of an advisor. The association is also exploring the idea of adding a final exam and a general level of field competency to demonstrate that participants have the required experience. But the struggle lies in balancing improvements to the program and keeping it accessible.

“The NCSO should not be accessible to everyone,” Hawkins says, “but something that says, yes, you gained information from courses you took with us.”

 

Testing the Water
It is estimated that as many as 200 to 300 certifications and designations in Canada fall under the occupational health, safety and environment domain, says Nikki Wright, executive director of the Board of Canadian Registered Safety Professionals in Mississauga, Ontario. As employers and government organizations rely on the certification process to hire employees and award contracts, the following are among the considerations when evaluating the quality of a certification:

  • Valid and reliable examinations;
  • High-quality questions in certification exams;
  • Passing scores (which indicate whether a candidate meets a minimum level of competence);
  • Transparency (a certification program should publish documents that clearly define the certification responsibilities of the organization);
  • Third-party accreditation;
  • Recertification (to ensure that certified individuals continue to advance their knowledge and skills); and
  • Recognition (to determine to what extent the certification program is recognized by employers and organizations).

“When selecting an oh&s certification, it is imperative to review the quality of the certification using the above criteria,” Wright advises. “An oh&s certification that does not meet these standards may waste time, effort and money.”

 

Kelly Putter is a writer in Beamsville, Ontario.

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