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Part 1: How the PIRB’s audit process improves standards of plumbing

By Eamonn Ryan 

Homeowner complaints lodged with the PIRB against plumbers have been increasing in recent years – and this is a positive indicator rather than any sign of poor workmanship.

Herman Strauss, head of the PIRB’s audit department attributes it to the Certificate of Compliance (COC) audit process and growing awareness around SANS standards, even by the public. “It demonstrates the public is becoming more knowledgeable concerning SANS standards and are demanding nothing less than compliance. “The number of complaints is increasing, though, in the context of the total number of COCs logged, it remains minute. It is a positive indicator that more and more homeowners are becoming aware of the process and contact the PIRB to report when they believe something isn’t right. It is also true that sometimes the homeowner simply doesn’t understand the standard and the plumber is not at fault, in which case we will support the plumber.”

In cases where the plumber is found to be at fault, there is an administrative process that commences.

In terms of plumbing errors discovered during the COC audit process, these typically fall into two categories:

  • not complying in terms of submitting a non-compliance notice to the user, or alternatively
  • failing to adhere to the requirements of the standards pertaining to the installation

An installation for audit is selected at random from among a weekly schedule of every COC logged with PIRB. Strauss explains: “PIRB doesn’t employ any auditors – it sub-contracts this function to a third party, in this case Iopsa, but it retains ultimate and full responsibility. We instruct the auditor exactly what to audit and how to do it.

“The auditor verifies onsite that the installation matches the requirements of the relevant standard. When a deviation from the SANS standard is uncovered in audit, the licensed plumber is then notified directly by the auditor of the failed items.” The plumber is then required to correct the faulty workmanship. Once that is done, the auditor returns to verify, reports this to PIRB and the process is complete. In cases where the plumber has found additional non-compliant items, in most cases the plumber would advise the client of the additional pre-existing non-compliant items in writing, and advise the homeowner to correct them. If accepted by the client then the responsibility for correcting them lies with the owner.

However, in cases where the plumber quoted to do a ‘fully compliant’ installation then the onus lies with the plumber to rectify any non-compliance found while working before he can issue a COC. While the COC is an important document, the non-compliance notice is equally vital in terms of the plumber’s protection. When an audit is conducted the non-compliance notice becomes an integral part of the audit process.

How this process improves the work performance of the plumber

This audit process, and aligned training on identified areas of weakness, has been key to a measurable improvement in the standard of compliance. The interaction between the compliance team and plumbers over the years has impacted positively on the standard of installations. For example, a few years ago the pass rate in terms of audits conducted was around 30%, compared to around 70% currently.

This can be attributed to the extensive training provided and to direct communication between the plumber and the compliance auditor. The focus of PIRB has all along been far more on upskilling licensed plumbers than on penalising them. In particular, the direction and focus of the compliance auditor team have been to use the audit process as a learning experience. The majority of plumbers who attend the audits appreciate the one-on-one nature of the audit and the opportunity to learn at first hand.

Strauss explains that statistics enable the PIRB to gauge improvements in compliance down to a level of individual plumbers – and that this improvement has been significant. Demonstrating how it is a learning process, Strauss says: “We can see certain types of error stop occurring. When new areas of error arise, they in turn become the focus. Overall, we can monitor a decrease in the total number of failures for a particular plumber. This often becomes a source of pride for the plumber.”

From the initial one-on-one nature of the audit process, the building blocks of PIRB’s entire industry-wide learning platform are developed. The auditors identify general categories of errors, which the PIRB then formalise into weekly Tech Talks presented by the Institute of Plumbing of South Africa.  Furthermore, training notices are put out to licensed plumbers and where required onsite training for the plumber and staff is conducted

Specific areas of standards that have improved

There have seen improvements in specific areas of standards in recent years due to the audit process and subsequent training. These include:

  • Correct installation of Safety Valves
  • Ventilation of drainage systems
  • Access points for drainage pipes
  • Bonding and earthing
  • Accessibility of components
  • Pipe supports secured correctly
  • Detailed non-compliance notices submitted to clients
  • Better communication from plumber to client

Notwithstanding an initial reluctance by some plumbers to change their operating basis and comply with standards, once the process was seen as a training exercise to uplift the plumber there was widespread enthusiasm for the audit and a deeper understanding by plumbers of their responsibility as a licensed plumber.

“It still occasionally occurs that licensed plumbers, whose employees have carried out an installation, sign it off without detailed verification of compliance. PIRB’s experience is that the plumbers are quick to rectify, though with an occasional nudge. What has led to this positive attitude is that the compliance auditors are highly approachable and willing to assist and guide. As a result, auditors on average receive three to four calls a day for guidance and direction,” says Strauss.

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