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Industry overwhelmed by certifications, designations

Growing number of options impeding self-regulation
vintage diploma

Workplace health and safety is now recognized as a new risk to be managed as part of a well-designed enterprise risk management program. Increasingly, companies that seek operational excellence include achieving a safe workplace as a part of this quest. This shift has created a new demand for qualified safety practitioners and professionals. This demand has resulted in a growing number of universities offering occupational health and safety programming and an increasing number of organizations, societies and agencies offering occupational health and/or safety designations and certification schemes.

In spite of all of this work, safety is still not recognized as a true profession in Canada. At last count, there were more than 20 certifications and designations in Canada related to occupational health and safety. In Hiring a Health and Safety Practitioner – A Guide for Employers and OHS Practitioners, the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering has published a detailed listing of 18 of these. Certifications and designations are being added to the list every year. An argument can be made that this fractured landscape of certifications and designations is a major impediment to safety ever becoming a self-regulating “true profession” like engineering, law, accounting or medicine.

To dig deeper into this issue, we need to make the distinction between a certification and a designation. One definition of these two terms could be as follows:

A safety certification is a qualification offered by a safety practitioner organization that specifies minimum formal education, qualifications and practical experience, along with a mandatory certification maintenance program. A good example of a certification is the Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP). This qualification would typically include a formal competency assessment. The Board of Canadian Registered Safety Professionals (BCRSP) sets certification standards for the CRSP, has defined a body of knowledge in its competency framework, administers a standardized exam for applicants and manages the certification maintenance process for certificate holders.

On the other hand, a safety designation is a qualification offered by a provincial or national industry or safety association that can be earned by the completion of a series of short duration courses. For example, the Health and Safety Practitioner (HSP) designation offered by Safety Services Nova Scotia has a program of training and other requirements that an applicant must complete to be allowed to use the designation. In most cases, these qualifications do not require applicants to possess any formal academic qualifications, do not include a mandatory certification maintenance point scheme and are not independently accredited.

At first glance, the need for 20 such certifications and designations seems excessive and begs the question: Should anyone be allowed to start up and copyright a safety certification or designation? Shouldn’t there be standardized requirements across the country for safety certifications and designations? Or should it just be “buyer beware” and we should allow this free-for-all to continue?

The Canadian Federation of Construction Safety Associations has finalized a process to offer a harmonized and standardized certification for construction safety professionals in Canada. The certification will be called the National Construction Safety Officer (NCSO) or Construction Safety Supervisor (CSS) depending on the province of issue. This harmonization will significantly reduce the number of construction safety acronyms in Canada. Mike McKenna, executive director of the British Columbia Construction Safety Association has been a big part of the leadership team working to achieve this goal. They have agreed on a standardized body of knowledge and have established the core educational requirements.

“There will be a national exam that all construction safety professionals will complete, regardless of where they are from in Canada. The exam is currently being vetted and will be finalized by year end,” McKenna said.

A continuing education and three-year re-certification system has been included, and this will apply to all construction safety professionals currently working in the field. With these new requirements and standardization, this new construction safety certification has sufficient rigour for it to stand up to the scrutiny and the standard of any safety certification.

Another example is the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA), which is working towards the introduction of a new safety certification — the Certified Transportation Safety Professional (CTSP).

“One of the drivers for this new certification is the legislated requirement for carrier companies to have a designated safety officer,” said Lorraine Card, president of the AMTA.

Its plan is to create two levels for the designated safety officer: entry level and CTSP. The AMTA believes the current framework of education and certification for a safety practitioner in Canada does not include all of the competencies required for the transportation industry. AMTA has developed its new competency framework and is working with a local college to establish the educational program to go with the new certification scheme.

Another certification in the works is from BCRSP for OHS technicians. One of the drivers for this new certification is the recognition that there are many safety practitioners working in the field who do not qualify for the CRSP certification because they do not meet the formal educational requirements. The chair of the board of governors of BCRSP, Dave Turner, said they are looking to get people properly qualified.

“We need a defined education standard and have all candidates for any BCRSP certification do a standardized examination. If we could get everyone under one umbrella (technicians and professionals) it would allow us to go to companies and make the case that we are a profession,” Turner said.

The BCRSP is currently completing a validation survey of its members to obtain their feedback on a comprehensive set of competencies and a certification scheme for OHS technicians in Canada.

BCRSP was the first safety certification body in Canada, established on Feb. 10, 1976, and the CRSP is likely the best known and, perhaps, represents the highest standard for a generalist occupational health and safety professional.

The problem is the dilution effect of the sheer number of other certifications and designations. This is further complicated by the specialist certifications and designations offered by industry sectors. The CRSP has been the standard-bearer for occupational health and safety professional certifications for 40 years and it is now getting lost in the noise of the 20-plus other certifications and designations. How does the consumer sort through this all? Is “buyer beware” really the best strategy?

In addition, there is the bigger issue of safety being formally recognized as a true profession in Canada. This free-for-all landscape of certifications and designations is a major impediment to safety ever becoming a self-regulating, true profession. A key argument for regulating professions is that they have to have, maintain and deliver a unique set of knowledge and skills to ensure the public interest is served. Self-regulation is intended to ensure the people most knowledgeable of best practices provide the standards for measuring competence and professional conduct. The cost of the regulatory process is then borne by the profession — not the taxpayer.

Instead of safety professionals in Canada working to create even more certifications and designations, perhaps what is needed is some effort and leadership around agreeing on a body of knowledge and working to harmonize a certification scheme that includes a ladder that is descriptive and inclusive of all levels, from safety technician to true safety professional, without overlap or duplication. The safety profession needs to seek this privilege of ensuring the public safety on behalf of the members of our profession. If we are to ever be successful in achieving true professional status, we will have to work through this maze of certifications and designations.

This article originally appeared in the December 2016/January 2017 issue of COS.

Glyn Jones

Glyn Jones is a partner at EHS Partnerships in Calgary and the regional vice-president of Alberta, Northwest Territories and Nunavut for the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering. He is a consulting occupational health and safety professional with 30 years of experience. He also provides program design and instructional support to the University of New Brunswick’s OHS certificate and diploma programs. He can be reached at gjones@ehsp.ca.
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