Does certification surpass qualification & the reward for compliance?

When OSHA released the revised construction and crane standard (1926 Subpart CC), they required construction riggers and signal persons to be “qualified” by November 2010 and crane operators be “certified” by November 2014. However, the language surrounding certification raised concern with industry stakeholders, and OSHA extended the deadline for operator certification by 3 years. As it stands today, operators are required to be qualified, but by November 10, 2017, all construction crane operators must be certified. So what was the controversy about? What do you need to do to reach compliance? How will it impact jobsite safety? The following paragraphs explore these questions as the industry prepares for a final ruling by OSHA.

A few years ago, I received a call from an unhappy customer asking how one of his operators not only passed our training program, but also went on to gain a national certification. After a review of this student’s records, I informed the customer that this operator did a great job on all tests and practical exams. That’s when he yelled over the phone, “But he’s the guy who nearly turned over our crane and caused us to go through all this in the first place!”

So, this is a case of someone who passed all written and practical exams and is now a certified crane operator, but his employer believes he is unqualified. The question is: Is certification also qualification? In this case, it certainly was not. This owner believed that the certified operator could jeopardize job safety if he was put back in the seat of the crane.

The Responsible Party
A third-party training provider can only impart knowledge, teach skills to students and provide test results to help customers make an informed decision. If you want to know who makes the ultimate decision on whether personnel can perform a certain task, employers need not look further than the nearest mirror.

OSHA is clear on what it means to be a qualified person: “A person who, by possession of a recognized degree, certificate or professional standing, or who by extensive knowledge, training and experience, successfully demonstrated the ability to solve/resolve problems relating to the subject matter, the work, or the project.” It simply says, you, the employer, are the best person to understand qualification for your jobs and you are the only one who could possibly deem anyone as qualified to work on your site. However, one of the biggest issues currently confounding OSHA moving forward with certification is their desire to define certification as qualification (i.e. any person who achieves certification is therefore qualified). Therein lies the conundrum faced by the owner in the opening. The use of this operator, just because he is certified, is not an indication that he is qualified to perform the work assigned.

Reaching Compliance
Eventually a national-level certification is going to be a requirement for crane operators. There are four accredited certification organizations. However, I recommend that employers do their research before selecting the organization to marry. All certifications have common components, such as written and practical exams, but the similarity ends there. Make sure the organization you choose is accepted everywhere and with every customer you serve.

Not to lessen the importance of certification over qualification, let me end with an example of what certification can mean for your organization. In 2003, the state of California mandated certification for all crane operators by June 1, 2005. Shortly after the deadline, the test results came in to the committee that writes the exams showing exam scores plummeting to the low fifties. From this data, it became apparent that operators had rushed out last minute to gain certification without first attending training. Everyone got the message and eventually the test scores improved as more and more operators received proper training that enabled them to understand concepts and knowledge relating directly to their ability to operate safely.

Risk vs. Reward
Dramatic requirements should yield dramatic results. Prior to certification, in a period between 2002 and 2005, California suffered 10 fatalities and 30 injury cases due to crane accidents. Post-certification from 2005 to 2008, there were two fatal accidents and 13 injury cases. No one can argue these facts born out of the California study . Certification provided a valuable service for employers, but it never removed the employer’s responsibility to appoint qualified personnel.

Going forward, when you hire that certified operator, ensure they are checked out on the machines they will operate. Put them under the guidance of a trusted, qualified operator to ensure they understand all machine features. Don’t just assume the knowledge and skills they demonstrated for certification translate to positive action on the job. Certification is undoubtedly a great thing, but being qualified for the job must remain a critical principle of your operations to safeguard jobsite safety.