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Continuing Competence For Blasting Operations

By Helen Turner, HSE

Blasting is one of the most potentially dangerous operations in hard rock quarrying. There is the immediate risk associated with the storage, transport and handling of explosives; wider on-site risks associated with firing the shot itself; and secondary risks such as flyrock which may go beyond the quarry boundary, poorly designed or problematic blasts affecting subsequent quarry operations, and the risk of misfires caused by poor blast design, poor practice or faulty equipment. Human error at any stage in the blasting operation could have fatal consequences, and by the nature of the work it is essential that those involved understand the risks and how best to avoid them, or how to deal with problems which may nevertheless arise.

The quarrying industry in Britain, with a strong steer from the Quarries National Joint Advisory Committee (QNJAC), has recognized and is striving towards demonstrable competence for all those who work in quarrying. Increasingly, the longer-term advantages of a more competent workforce are starting to be recognized and realized. It is one of the QNJAC’s aims that the industry be fully competence assured by 2010, since improved health and safety performance is one of these benefits.

This article reviews the relevant qualifications, the changes to the competence framework taking place over the next few years, and how shotfirers and explosives supervisors can demonstrate and maintain their competence up to and beyond 2010. It summarizes the QNJAC Explosives Sub-committee’s recent work on identifying and supporting a competence-based, rather than knowledge-based, system for those involved in blasting operations. It is anticipated that this system will be ratified at the October 2006 meeting of the QNJAC.

THE LEGAL POSITION

Regulation 9 of the Quarries Regulations 1999 requires quarry operators to ensure that anyone working at a quarry is competent to do so (or is under competent supervision if undergoing training). Competent means ‘a person with sufficient training, experience, knowledge and other qualities to enable him properly to undertake the duties assigned to him’ (Regulation 2). Operators need to ensure that they minimize the risk from blasting operations, and part of their responsibility is to ensure that the persons who undertake blasting within their quarries, be it their own employees or contractors, are competent.

Considerable consultation with industry has taken place in recent months to map out acceptable ways to ensure that shotfirers and explosives supervisors can demonstrate and maintain competence to the relevant national standard, so they can continue to undertake or supervise the blasting operation and remain in compliance with Regulation 9.

TRAINING AND QUALIFICATIONS

Until the mid-1980s the training of those involved in blasting was very much conducted on an ad-hoc basis. Some companies had good training programmes for shotfirers and those persons involved in designing blasts. Others followed a ‘sitting with Nellie’ approach (informal on-the-job training), with all the shortcomings of this method of training.

The Quarry Products Training Council (QPTC), in conjunction with the HSE, industry and manufacturers of explosives, then introduced two examinations, in Shotfiring Operations and Blast Design. These examinations quickly became established as the norm for those wishing to become shotfirers or designers of blasts. These qualifications are now referred to as the ‘old (pre-2002) qualifications’. Owing to changes in government policy on training, QPTC expanded during the mid-1990s to become EPIC.

With the introduction of the Quarries Regulations, and particularly Part V, Explosives, a thorough review was undertaken and a new set of examinations consisting of four modules was introduced in 2002:
Module 1 – Shotfiring
Module 2 – Blast Design & Calculation
Module 3 – Environmental
Module 4 – Health & Safety Legislation.

These qualifications are now referred to as the ‘new-style (post-2001) qualifications’. As with the ‘old’ exams, the Shotfiring examination had to be passed before any of the other examinations could be taken. On successful completion of the Shotfiring module an EPIC Shotfiring Card and Certificate were issued, and, once all three other modules had been passed, an EPIC Explosives Supervisor Card and Certificate were issued.

However, in terms of the industry’s developing understanding of competence, there remained a problem. Examinations can only measure some of the knowledge that a person has retained to be able to answer the questions put to them in the examination. There is no measure that the person can, or has, put this knowledge into practice. The examination cannot cover all aspects of blasting operations or all the material delivered on a training course.

In the mid-1980s the then government introduced the concept of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs). These N/SVQs were to be a measure of competence for a whole range of occupational activities, from hairdressing to strategic management, including operations within the extractives industry. N/SVQs comprise a number of units, each of which equates to a unit from a National Occupational Standard (NOS). Candidates can be assessed for a wide range of units, and when certain combinations of units are completed an N/SVQ can be awarded. It is important to note that the achievement of each individual unit is a qualification in itself, and the units undertaken by an individual should reflect their range of job responsibilities, perhaps also with consideration of units that would be desirable to achieve towards potential progression or promotion routes.

The major difference between the achievement of an N/SVQ unit and passing an examination is that candidates have to show they can demonstrate in their own workplace the competence set out in the NOSs for the operations they undertake. There are ‘underpinning knowledge’ requirements, ie the candidate has to show not only that they can physically perform a task to a NOS, but also that they can explain why they do things the way they do, and what they would do in a range of unusual circumstances that may arise.

The first N/SVQs for shotfiring became available in the mid-1990s. Explosives Supervisor qualifications appeared from 2000 as two units, ES1 and ES2. Blast Design also had its own units, BD1 and BD2. N/SVQs are reviewed on a five-yearly basis. When the NOSs were reviewed in 2005, all the units for shotfirers, explosives supervisors and blast designers were combined into one series or suite of standards, now known as Blasting Operations.

CHANGES AT THE END OF 2006

As long ago as 2002, in response to the competence requirements under the Quarries Regulations, the HSE expressed a wish to ensure that by the end of 2006 anyone who undertook a role in blasting operations at a quarry was demonstrably competent. Using the existing framework, the measure of this would be the attainment of an N/SVQ in Shotfiring (now Blasting Operations).

However, there were problems associated with this target. Take-up of the Shotfiring N/SVQ had been low, and industry had become used to the examination route as a means of measuring competence, which was now recognized as problematic. EPIC took the lead in discussing these issues with industry representatives during 2005, and the basis of understanding was reached on what was needed for current shotfirers and explosives supervisors, qualified under either the ‘old’ or ‘new’ exams, and with or without S/NVQ qualifications, to become or remain demonstrably competent to the current standard. At this stage it was recognized that a wider stakeholder discussion, under the auspices of the QNJAC, was needed.

A QNJAC Explosives Sub-committee meeting was called in February 2006 and the term ‘continuing competence’ was adopted as a means of describing the process whereby an individual could remain competent after initial achievement of a vocational qualification under relevant units. Continuing professional development (CPD) would be part of this if, for example, different blasting techniques or materials were introduced or if there had been any change in relevant legislation etc.

Using the precedent of the successful five-yearly reassessment of mobile plant operators, a working group of the QNJAC sub-committee drafted ‘audit checklists’ against which all shotfirers and explosives supervisors would be audited on a five-yearly basis.

Those currently practising as shotfirers or explosives supervisors will need to be able to demonstrate active engagement in the competence assurance process in the event of inspection or investigation by the HSE. There is a clear route to competence for those newly coming into these roles.

WHAT ABOUT MY EXISTING QUALIFICATIONS?

Shotfirers

For Shotfirers who do not hold an N/SVQ in Shotfiring there are two distinct groups:

Those who hold a pre-2002 (old-style) EPIC Shotfiring Certificate
These certificates will not be recognized as a means of measuring competence from
31 December 2006, and therefore by that date this group of shotfirers will need to have either completed the S/NVQ in Shotfiring/Blasting Operations or passed the new-style (post-2001) examination in Shotfiring (Module 1). If the re-examination route is taken, Shotfirers will still have to obtain their N/SVQ in Blasting Operations by 31 December 2010 to be able to demonstrate competence beyond that date.

Those who hold a post-2001 (new-style) EPIC Shotfiring Card/Certificate
These certificates were issued with a five-year life, and the original concept was that Shotfirers would re-take the examination every five years. However, there are now two options available to this category of shotfirer before the expiry date of their current card/certificate:

  1. Complete their N/SVQ in Shotfiring before the date of expiry of their current EPIC Shotfiring Card; or
  2. Re-take the new-style (post-2001) examination in Shotfiring (Module 1) before the date of expiry of their current card and then complete their N/SVQ by 31 December 2010.

From 1 January 2007, new or trainee shotfirers will have to achieve their N/SVQ in Blasting Operations before they can be appointed as a shotfirer.

Explosives Supervisors

For explosives supervisors who do not hold units ES1 and ES2 from the old N/SVQ in Shotfiring, or BL11 from the new N/SVQ in Blasting Operations, there are again two routes to demonstrating competence to the current standard:

Those who hold a pre-2002 (old-style) EPIC Blast Design Certificate
These certificates will not be recognized as a means of measuring competence from 31 December 2006, and therefore from this date this group of explosives supervisors will need to have either completed unit BL11, ‘Supervise the Blasting Operation’, or passed Modules 1 to 4 of the current (post-2001) examinations for explosives supervisors. If the re-examination route is taken, explosives supervisors will still have to achieve unit BL11 by 31 December 2010 to remain demonstrably competent beyond that date.

Those who hold a post 2001 (new-style) EPIC Explosives Supervisor Card/Certificate
EPIC Explosives Supervisor cards/ certificates were issued with a five-year life, and the original concept was that explosives supervisors would re-take the examination every five years. However, there are now two options available to this category of explosives supervisor before the expiry date of their current card/certificate:

  1. Complete unit BL11, ‘Supervise the Blasting Operation’ before the date of expiry of their current EPIC Shotfiring Card; or
  2. Re-take the new-style (post-2001) examinations (Modules 1 to 4) before the date of expiry of their current card and then complete unit BL11 by 31 December 2010.

Full details of how to maintain competence for shotfirers and explosives supervisors can be found on EPIC’s web site (go to: www.epicltd.com, then click on Shotfirers & Explosives Supervisors, then click on Routes to re-qualification July 2006), where there are a number of diagrams and explanations on how to maintain competence dependent upon what qualifications are already held. Figure 1 shows an example of such a diagram, this particular one relating to a current shotfirer who holds an ‘old-style’ (pre-2002) Shotfiring Certificate/Card.

DEMONSTRATING CONTINUING COMPETENCE

Retaking examinations every five years is not considered to be a solution, even though that was the original plan when the new-style (post-2001) Modules 1 to 4 were introduced in 2002. Resitting the examinations measures, at best, the ‘underpinning knowledge’ that a person has but this does not equate to practical competence as a shotfirer or explosives supervisor.

For those individuals who already have or will now achieve relevant units of the N/SVQ in Blasting Operations it is not the intention that they undergo a full N/SVQ reassessment every five years. They have proved their competence using the national system, and what is now needed is that they continue to show such competence. This will involve:

  • keeping a log of shots (which will go with the person and is not necessarily achieved from the operator’s site-based record)
  • maintaining a record of continuing professional development (CPD)
  • undergoing a ‘continuing competence’ audit every five years.

The first audit should take place within five years of obtaining an N/SVQ, so there could be a number of shotfirers who hold an NVQ in Shotfiring who will be subject to this early in 2007, as they will have obtained their N/SVQ before 2002.

The concept of continuing competence, as discussed and refined by the QNJAC Explosives Sub-committee, is that an audit is undertaken (a snapshot rather than a full NVQ Assessment) of the shotfirer or explosives supervisor undertaking a blast. The audit checklist has been produced by representatives from industry, including those who actually undertake and are responsible for blasting operations at quarries, blasting contractors and those organizations involved in the current series of training courses, to ensure that the content is relevant to what actually happens, or should happen, during the blasting operation. The audit is seeking to assess the individual’s competence with regard to the content of NVQ units, the Quarries Regulations 1999 and National Occupational Standards.

The content of the audit will be openly available on EPIC’s web site so that anyone, including those who will be subject to an audit, will be able to see what will be covered and the questions that may be asked. Shotfirers and explosives supervisors will therefore be able to prepare themselves for an audit well in advance so that they can check their current operations to see if they meet the requirements for them to maintain their competence. Part of the audit is a ‘professional discussion’ to cover those issues which have not been observed during the audited shot, such as how misfires would be managed.

The content of the audit may evolve over a period of time to reflect changes in guidance notes, ACOPs and the content of the N/SVQ in Blasting Operations (which will next be reviewed in 2010).

What if I don’t pass the exam/ achieve the NVQ units by date of expiry of my current qualification(s)?

Both the HSE and EPIC have endeavoured to publicize and be very open about the discussions which have been taking place for more than a year, but inevitably there may be some people involved in blasting operations who are only now becoming aware, in the final quarter of 2006, of the implications for them as a result of the changes from 1 January 2007.

The HSE’s general enforcement approach to competence issues in the quarrying industry has been published on the HSE web site as SIM 03/2005/11. In order to continue to practise, shotfirers and explosives supervisors will need to be able to demonstrate active engagement in the (re)qualification process, should they be questioned by a quarry operator or HSE inspector.

The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Graham Crawshaw, senior training advisor with EPIC Ltd, in the preparation of this article.

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