Moving Gas Compliance from Reassurance to Assurance

Managing the required standards for gas compliance is demanding operational challenge for Registered Social Landlords.

The technology behind legacy systems is not evolving sufficiently quickly, nor are applications fully supporting the critical maintenance staff working on these assets.

“Employing an engineer to carry out gas work does not absolve the CEO and board from their legal responsibility.” 

There needs to be a radical re-think to fully address the safety issues and deliver the shift of ownership identified in the Hackitt Report.

In summary, we need to seek to turn this regulatory obligation into a value adding activity along the lines envisaged by Government Policy for a Digitally Built Britain.

Background

Regulation 36 of the Gas Safety Regulations seems fairly innocuous. It requires all tenants to be in possession of a valid Gas Safety certificate at all times.

This is reasonable given both the real dangers presented by poorly maintained gas apparatus, and that poorly maintained equipment will cost some of the poorer people in society more, in relative terms, just to keep their homes warm.

“Employing an engineer to carry out gas work does not absolve the CEO and board from their legal responsibility.

They are potentially left holding the can if they do not have the correct procedures in place to check that a qualified person carried out the right work at the right property within the right time frame. Although the landlord may employ a gas engineer to take responsibility for carrying out the work, that does not mean they have contracted out their accountability.

“If something goes wrong, the CEO and board are ultimately accountable for any failures to ensure that things have been done correctly which could result in a substantial fine and/or a custodial sentence.

Dorota Pawlowski, Senior Associate, Trowers & Hamlins LLP

There is plenty of advice offered in terms of how this compliance can be demonstrated in practice. As highlighted in Building a Safer Future – “industry [should not] be waiting to be told what to do and some looking for ways to work around it.” That said the following points from the Audit Commission show the depth of thinking beyond the points of law required in every Landlord Gas Safety Certificate:

Governance, Monitoring and Compliance

  • Is there a clear procedure to gain access to properties to undertake a gas safety check every 12 months?
  • Is this followed and clearly documented/recorded?
  • Is there a ‘policing’ role for gas safety check within the landlord function? If so are they suitably qualified?
  • Is progress on safety checks and servicing monitored at least weekly?
  • Does the landlord do its own cross-checks upon completion of servicing?
  • Does the landlord cross-check whether paperwork has been completed appropriately?
  • Is there an external independent quality & compliance audit?

Management of Contractors

  • What checks does the housing organisation undertake to ensure the competency of the contractors they employ?
  • Are the same competency checks of contractors applied to planned maintenance contract works?
  • What quality checks are undertaken of the gas paperwork and by who?

Addressing each of these points in an auditable and accountable way is an administrative challenge if you have more than a handful of properties. For some organisations there is the problem of “generalism” – will an individual have the breadth of skills to be an expert client? For the larger organisations there is the issue of scale – you have a dedicated compliance manager, but the sheer volume of issues means they can be engaged in a never ending game of “whack-a-mole” for missing certificates, no access tenants, quality checks and a revolving property portfolio.

Against this background, some feel relief if the field engineering team can report the business as being “pretty good on gas compliance” or inscrutably precise figures, such as 99.6% compliant, are quoted.

Such performance, if actually achieved, would mean a large overhead of administrative time and effort, service cycles of 10 months or less, and high levels of audit and scrutiny.

By scratching under the surface however, all may not be as it seems. Certificates may revert to paper in times of operational stress allowing the production of “drive-by” certificates; manufacturer’s guidelines may not be followed in each case; and certificates produced with not much more than a cursory examination, or worse!

Failure to gain access for gas servicing is a major point of pain. This is usually put down to the tenants not being at home. However, scheduling of appointments by field contractors for just either AM or PM can contribute to the problem, and lead to the property being carded. There is a significant cost to broken appointments either through an explicit premium added to cycle times, appointment rates or just the goodwill of the tenants.

If you consider the true cost of an engineer calling: a suitably qualified and experienced engineer, a van equipped with appropriate test equipment and a stock of spares, a handheld device with linkages to various legacy systems, admin support, management overhead, possibly some QA plus a sliver of margin.

Then consider only achieving an outcome in 3 out of every 4 visits plus travel, then it is clear that headline rates for 3* service packages per property are not necessarily indicative of the expected outturn costs per property from the contractor’s perspective. In fact, you are creating incentives for engineers and the businesses that employ them to turn a blind eye to some of the practices that enable the job to be completed and a return to be made whilst reporting high levels of compliance.

Another cost that seriously needs to be considered is the administrative overhead involved when a defect is identified on a Landlord Gas Safety certificate and the management process for ensuring the defect is notified and any corrective actions followed through.

Solution

You may feel the position described above may be slightly exaggerated. You may feel you have some reassurance that “it wouldn’t happen within our own organisation”, or feel comfortable that you work very closely with your contractors. However, the test needs to be assurance, not merely reassurance

There is a fundamental data imbalance within such supply chains where verifying identity and competence is not performed in real time. How would you know if a Gas Safe card had been shared around, or that work had been undertaken by a semi-skilled individual and subsequently signed off by a skilled engineer? Likewise, can you absolutely verify the engineer has visited the meter and removed the boiler cover? Can your van tracker validate the contractor has not just completed his inspection from his van sat outside the property? And can you scrutinize the time spent monitoring the flue gases, what those readings were, and did they come from an analyser that was calibrated?

Whilst there may well be administrative fixes to these issues they are in the main just that, a fix, not a solution; they require the cultivation of a number of off-line spreadsheets that require inputs inputting and updates updating. Understandably this will not be done in real time, or even on a daily basis.

Such fixes are not truly independent and offer the potential for minor non-compliances to be corrected and as such would be audited by a diligent service provider.

Again, this is a cost for the Landlord, a cost that provides no added-value for either the client or the contractor.

This lack of transparency also effects the customer experience. Most calls relating to the performance or conduct of an engineer will be within 30 minutes, following a job. Can your customer service staff access information of this nature in real-time, or indeed a flag to indicate that an engineer is on the property and therefore the tenant will be around for the next hour or so enabling interventions if required from Housing Support teams.

Evidence from the deployment of Gas Tag has shown it can rapidly address these issues and help re-balance the data inequality in favour of the client. Hitherto the process is characterised as one of reassurance, where contractors reassure clients (well they would say that wouldn’t they – especially where KPIs and Service Credits are involved). Gas Tag can help drive “Assurance”; by use of a smartphone, an enormous amount of asset management information can be captured independently by these validated and experienced engineers. This data can go way beyond the statutory requirements of Regulation 36.  It can help transform this regulatory obligation into a value-added activity. Through constantly updating and refining the quality of the asset management data held on legacy systems, it can enable better decision-making at all levels of the organisation.

Conclusions

The objective of this paper was to explore some of the problems associated with managing gas compliance.  It was to highlight some areas where, even with high reported levels of compliance, Housing Associations would do well to both consider the independence of the sources of data on which they are reliant, and to explore moving from reassurance to a stronger assurance culture.

Solutions such as Gas Tag exist to break through the dependence on unresponsive legacy infrastructure based systems. By harnessing the use of smartphones and cloud-based technology, Gas Tag is able to raise the bar; transforming the seemingly mundane checks into essential safety assurance.

 

References

[1] Building a Safer Future – Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety – Interim Report December 2017 p6

[2] https://www.gov.uk/guidance/creating-a-digital-built-britain-what-you-need-to-know

[3] Building a Safer Future – Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety – Interim Report December 2017 p3

[4] http://www.admin.gassafelandlords.co.uk/uploadpdf/Gas_Safety_advice_for_landlords_v1.pdf)

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