Moving Gas Compliance from Reassurance to Assurance

In terms of managing health and safety compliance meeting the required standards for gas compliance can be one of the most demanding operational challenges for Registered Social Landlords.

The issue is in part that the technology behind the underpinning legacy systems is not evolving as fast as the operational assets of Housing Associations nor is the technology supporting the critical maintenance staff working on these assets.

To avoid being “Beta-maxed” out, there needs to be a radical re-think of the concept of gas compliance to address the underlying safety issues that were the basis of much of the legislation and deliver the shift of ownership identified in the Hackitt Report. In summary, 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 in its requirement for all tenants to be in possession of a valid Gas Safety certificate at all times. This does not seem in the least bit unreasonable given the real dangers presented by poorly maintained gas apparatus in terms of carbon monoxide poisoning and the fact that such poorly maintained equipment will cost some of the poorer people in society more in relative terms 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 are just a few points of guidance from the Audit Commission that 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 inevitably leads to an administrative challenge when faced with anything more than a handful of properties. For the smaller organisations there is the problem of generalism – it is highly unlikely any individual can have the breadth of skills to be an expert client. For the larger organisations there is the issue of scale – you may very well have a dedicated compliance manager but the sheer volume of material being generated means they are most likely to be engaged in a never ending game of “whack-a-mole” for missing certificates, no access tenants and revolving property portfolio.

This means there is a general sense of relief when the field engineering team can report the business as being “pretty good on gas compliance” and inscrutably precise figures such as 99.6% compliant are quoted as unquestionable evidence this is the case.

Such performance, if achieved by fair means will 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. Does anybody systematically check that the manufacturer’s guidelines are being followed in each case and is any certificate provided with much more than a cursory examination.

The specific pain points most often mentioned around gas are those of gaining access to the property. This is usually attributed to the intransigence of the tenants in staying around for such a critical safety inspection.  However, this may in part be due to the block booking of soft half-day appointments by field contractors at their convenience suggesting am or pm slots of over 4 hours – unsurprisingly tenants may not be around and the property is then carded. There is a significant cost to the entire industry of such 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 imprest stock of spares, a handheld device with linkages to various legacy systems, an administrative overhead, a management overhead, possibly some QA  plus a sliver of margin. Then consider only achieving an outcome in 3 out of every 4 visits with an allowance including travelling 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.

Solution

The position described above may be slightly exaggerated and there is some truth in some of the assertions that it wouldn’t happen within our own organisations or that we work very closely with our contractors.

However, there is a fundamental data imbalance within such supply chains where data 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 – your van tracker will only validate the contractor has drawn up outside and the presence of a large dog may be sufficient to persuade the engineer to complete his inspection from his van. Also do you have an understanding of 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 in the main require the cultivation of a number of off-line spreadsheets that require inputs and updating. Understandably this will not be done on a daily basis. Such systems 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. But again this is adding to the overhead and generating non-value-added activity for client and contractor which is paid for ultimately by the client.

The lack of transparency will also effect the customer experience. Most calls relating to the performance or conduct of an engineer are likely to be within the first 30 minutes following a job. How often do your front line customer facing staff have access to real time information of this nature 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 address many of 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). By use of a smartphone an enormous amount of asset management information can be captured independently by these validated and experienced engineers. This information can go way beyond the statutory requirements of Regulation 36 and seek to transform this regulatory obligation into a value added activity, constantly updating and refining the quality of the asset management data held on legacy systems allowing 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 and to highlight some of the areas where even with high reported levels of compliance Housing Associations would do well to consider the independence of the sources of data on which they are reliant in fulfilling this obligation and to move from a reassurance to an assurance culture.

Solutions such as Gas Tag exist to break through the dependence on unresponsive legacy infrastructure based systems allowing the use of smart phones and cloud based computing to augment the reality of the seemingly mundane but essential gas safety check.

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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