Spotlight on accreditation

Categories: Engineering and science.

Until a few weeks ago, even many professional people would never have heard of IANZ – International Accreditation New Zealand.

However, IANZ, and its Chief Executive, Dr Llewellyn Richards, were thrust into the media spotlight because of their central role in events involving the granting of building consents by Christchurch City CounciL.

“Enjoy’, is not a word I’d use in relation to our recent prominence”, Dr Richards says, “but it’s been fantastic for the profile of IANZ”.

“For that I am very pleased. We now have Cabinet Ministers talking about IANZ without us having to explain who we are. We have corrective actions being debated in Parliament. It is amazing. From our side it has certainly raised our profile enormously.

“IANZ is the accreditation authority for New Zealand’s professional technical services. We assess laboratories, radiology practices and the like. We also assess a lot of engineering inspection bodies that inspect things such as cranes, pressure equipment, boilers, fire safety systems and petroleum exploration installations.

What we are doing is making sure that the inspection bodies themselves are competent and recently, we’ve added bUilding consent authorities as well.”

IANZ became involved in building consents as a result of the leaky buildings crisis. Dr Richards says leaky buildings, which cost New Zealanders between $11 billion and $20 billion, led to a major review of the whole building infrastructure in New Zea land, culminating in a new Building Act in 2004.

“We were asked to set up a programme for accrediting the building inspection activities of local government. We said fine; it’s no different to any of the other inspection accreditation programmes that we have.”

The programme IANZ drafted is based on the international standard ISO 17020, which is the competence standard for inspection body accreditation around the world. This was modified after local authorities raised concerns that the 17020 standard was going to be too difficult for them to meet.

The then new Department of Building and Housing drafted the building consent accreditation regulations, which IANZ now uses for assessment.

“When the leaky building crisis occurred, there were buildings being built that did not comply with the Building Code, or did not do so adequately.”

Dr Richards explains accreditation provides assurance that the system is working and there is evidence it is working. This involves undertaking a basic check that applications for building consents cover the things that they should.

Focusing on checking the effectiveness of processes in producing reliable outcomes is integral to IANZ’s work.

While IANZ assessors don’t check every laboratory test or building consent granted, they do check to ensure the processes being used can provide assurance in the outcome.

In other words, good process will produce good outcomes. So what’s the consequence of non-accreditation or the withdrawal of accreditation?

“Not having a WOF [warrant of fitness] for a car doesn’t mean the car is unsafe. It means you don’t know, and it’s the same thing with accreditation,” Dr Richards says.

“Councils used to have applications coming to the door that were grossly incomplete, and they were being signed off, and then it was over to the builder. That can’t happen now.”

Dr Richards says the application should be complete when it is received by Council, and there needs to be enough detail in the application to show that, “yes, this building is going to be a sound building”.

So what went wrong in Christchurch? “We need evidence, and I am not talking about just Christchurch, to show that things are being done properly.

Dr Richards comments that if technical experts are looking at consents that have been granted, and they are saying that these are lacking a lot of the information that they should have, “then that absolutely ra ises warning bells for us.

“At the time of the September assessment of the Christchurch City Council’s building consents process, we identified building consents that did not meet the requirements of the Building Code or of the Building Act.

“Successful accreditation assessments give a positive assurance that everything is working. If we haven’t got the evidence to give a positive assurance, we can’t continue accreditation.

“Back in September (when the quality of the consents process was first raised) it was not a ‘must do now’. We raised issues that needed to be taken care of, but we understood that they were being taken care of, within the building consent process. “Obviously, it turned out that they weren’t. At that time they knew what things they needed to do and we expected them to do them,” he said.

IANZ accreditation also has an important role in international trade.

“These days, tariffs have just about gone as a trade protection mechanism,” Dr Richards says. “Regulators in other countries basically want to know that the product coming into their country is safe and meets local requirements.”

Ensuring out products meet our trading partners’ conditions means they have been tested to a standard that Dr Richards says now involves checking the checkers, who need to answer the question: “Is the laboratory that did the test accredited by the national accreditation authority?” .

For some years, IANZ has had “mutual recognition arrangements” with other accreditation bodies, based on evaluation against an international Standard. The first one was with the National Association of Testing Authorities (known as NASTA), IANZ’s Australian counterpart. That arrangement was signed in 1982, a year before the Closer Economic Relations agreement. There is also a global recognition agreement, signed in 2000, now c.overing 65 countries.

Dr Richardson says this number increases each year as more countries sign up to the agreement.

Many of New Zealand’s exports, which include dairy and meat products, aluminum, steel and wool, need to be tested. The regulators in most other countries require the testing to be done in an accredited laboratory so they have assurance the product is safe and meets their national requirements.

Dr Richards refers to overseas market access requirements as “the bane of everybody’s life.

“Europe introduced a new water test. Meat processing uses a lot of water. That water has to be biologically clean. They discovered a new microorganism in Europe, and they said we had to test for that microorganism in the water in New Zealand, even though we know that microorganism doesn’t exist here. But that’s what we must do.

“New Zealand exports dairy products to something like 152 different countries. Unfortunately, that means 152 different regulatory requirements for dairy products. For example, Morocco requires that the milk coming into Morocco is not from a herd that has been irradiated with nuclear radiation.

“Every month, therefore, someone in the Ministry of Primary Industry has to give Morocco an assurance that the New Zealand dairy herd has not been irradiated with nuclear radiation.”

Dr Richards says international trade certification can be a particular problem, and that unfortunately IANZ is now getting a significant number of counterfeit test reports. When requested, lANZ goes through quite an elaborate exercise with the countries that have certified the products to ask them to verify a report is a genuine test report, not a counterfeit.

This is a problem, as even though accreditation authorities may be competent, Dr Richards says IANZ is now getting test reports that are criminally fraudulent. He notes it is not about whether the lab is accredited, as it’s not always possible to rely on the accreditation logo, or the endorsement of the test report, “because what happens is that exporters take a genuine test report and modify it by putting on a different manufacturer’s name, a different lab sequence number, and then they try to pass the modified test report as a genuine test report,” he says.