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Quality under question in UK geotechnical laboratories

United Kingdom Accreditation Service’s Sam Giles explains his role in improving standards in UK geotechnical laboratories

An increased presence at recent testing standards committee meetings confirms UKAS – the United Kingdom Accreditation Service – has stepped up its game with regard to the geotechnical sector. Officials from the organisation have been indicating that they are keen to restore ties with the construction industry, but with a caveat.

There is a clear message that UKAS will be sticking to its existing remit of accreditation. While UKAS will help if it can, the task of setting and maintaining materials testing standards will remain down to the largely voluntary efforts of industry.

Hopes of more direct support from UKAS were raised following the appointment of its new accreditation manager for construction, mechanical testing and materials calibration, Sam Giles. According to industry sources, Giles made a strong impression at the first AGS meeting he attended, saying he recognised some shortcomings relating to UKAS’ involvement with the geotechnics sector.

Problems expressed by industry relate partly to proficiency testing (PT) schemes. All materials testing labs are required to partake in a system of PT in order to qualify for ISO 17025 accreditation. This is the standard against which UKAS assesses the general competence of materials labs, so in effect, PT participation is a necessity for UKAS accreditation.

However, one industry specialist has told GE that there are concerns about the results from PT and a general reluctance to participate among the 120 or so labs serving the geotechnics industry. The results from a recent round of PT testing of standard soil samples do not make good reading for the geotechnics sector.

These comments raise questions over the performance of UKAS accredited testing labs. Some may be doing all that is required to gain accreditation but then not providing the required quality and consistency of results in practice.

Speaking to GE, Giles said that while UKAS is concerned to hear of these results, it can provide only a limited response.

“People I have met at industry events have expressed their concerns and I say the same now as I said then: We are not allowed to offer consultancy. Of course we are concerned about these comments. Labs know they should partake in PT testing, but it is out of our hands to ensure people participate,” Giles said.

“We look at inter-laboratory PT tests. Labs have to make us comfortable that they are sufficiently competent to deliver testing, but proficiency testing is not provided by UKAS. It is the responsibility of each lab to seek out such schemes or organise them with other testing houses.”

Poor performance on an individual basis shown up by results from inter-comparative tests will inform how UKAS inspects that particular lab, Giles adds.

“We would expect them to improve their processes as a basic quality requirement, but there is nothing stated in standards to say PT schemes have to be done to a specific level. UKAS is not a body responsible for setting standards. They are set by others,” Giles said.

What UKAS does do is accredit around 3000 testing labs across a very broad range of sectors including food, construction, off-shore industry, forensic science and healthcare (about a third of the UK’s labs are medical).

As the UK’s national accreditation body, UKAS fulfills Government policy on testing with oversight of all UK testing regimes. It is a self-funding business and a non-profit organisation in one, with members including representatives of Government, business and end-user and consumer groups.

Giles has joined UKAS from Samsung Europe where he worked as the firm’s quality manager for seven years. He has also headed up a UKAS accredited calibration laboratory during a career which has included stints working for the Electrical Research Association (which later became ERA Technology) and the British Electrical Approvals Board, now Intertek.

Giles’ department is one of eight within UKAS, which has been on a recruitment drive over the past 12 months. It now has a total of 220 full time staff and 250 external assessors. Construction, Mechanical Testing & Materials Calibration has 20 assessment managers. This represents a full complement for his department, Giles says.

“We are succession planning for retirements and making sure we can meet industry needs, including attendance of AGS committee meetings. I’m certain that we are now achieving that. We have received very good feedback from the labs we accredit,” he says.

UKAS in general receives feedback via technical advisory committees for various specialisms. This has not been done for the geotechnics sector since UKAS’ Construction Industry Technical Committee last met about eight years ago.

A lack of direct communication between UKAS and the construction sector in recent years appears to have fuelled what another industry specialist describes as a “feeling of secrecy” about UKAS. The organisation’s presence at industry events and meetings of standing committees has visibly increased since Giles’ appointment.

“We will attend meetings with AGS and other industry events to maintain contact. Members of my team will be sitting on standards committees and of course we will maintain contact with labs as they are assessed,” Giles says.

Furthermore, a senior member of Giles’ team told GE: “We welcome any feedback and are open to dialogue. If industry finds there is a need for an advisory committee then we will consider that. We have about 40 of these. Some are strong, while others tend to drift away as it takes commitment from volunteers to maintain these groups. We are willing to consider such an initiative, but it also has to be a balanced group.”

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