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talking point

The drive for site investigation quality and accreditation is threatened by an apparent lack of commitment from some clients and consultants, says Matthew Baldwin.

Today's site investigation industry is totally different to that of the early 1980s.Everything is now quality driven, with drilling crews being trained and accredited, laboratories quality assured and ground investigation contractors all working toward ISO 9000 compliance. . . well, not exactly.

Those in the industry back in the boom days of the early 1990s, when ground investigation was riding the crest of the road building wave generated by what was then the Department of Transport (DoT), will remember the birth of the quality revolution.Following pressure from the department and a few other major procurers of ground investigation services, the British Drilling Association (BDA) introduced an accreditation scheme for drillers.

The scheme was designed to assess the competence of drilling foremen to operate cable tool and/or rotary drilling rigs by practical examination.By specifying to the contractor the requirement for an accredited driller, clients could be sure they were employing someone who knew how to obtain good quality soil or rock samples and how to perform insitu tests.Because the DoT always specified accredited drillers for highways work, the boom in road building in the early 1990s forced all the major contractors to accredit their drillers.A large number of self-employed drillers also became accredited.

By late 1992 the DoT also required accredited geotechnical testing laboratories.As a result the big contractors invested significant sums in their laboratories to attain National Accreditation of Measurement and Sampling (NAMAS) accredited status from the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS).

Although the road building bubble began to deflate by the mid 1990s, the requirement for quality investigations had spread throughout much of the industry.Many clients were specifying BDA drillers and accredited testing laboratories and the decline in highways work was offset by the general industry drive toward quality.There was even talk of contractors becoming ISO 9000 accredited so they could offer a complete quality package.

So what went wrong? The warning signs were noticed at the end of the 1990s when the industry was in recession.Falling order books meant prices were cut and industry reverted to type.Engineers began to stop specifying BDA and NAMAS accreditation and the door was opened for a host of smaller contractors who previously had been excluded from a large slice of the ground investigation market by their non-adherence to a formal quality process.

Sadly, three to four years later little has changed - in fact things have got worse.Although the industry is relatively buoyant again, commitment to quality from clients or consultants is hard to find.A decreasing number of tenders specify either BDA or UKAS accreditation and contractors must conclude that quality is no longer high on the agenda.This is very disheartening for firms that invested in quality 10 years ago and still carry the costs associated with their commitment.

This has placed the ground investigation industry on a unlevel playing field, isolating those brave enough to maintain quality standards as a result of a higher cost base.It is a fact that contractors are not renewing their accreditation.

It is fair to say that clients and engineers get what they pay for.It is disingenuous of them to complain about lack of quality in the industry, since it is they who ultimately influence industry trends.In some respects the industry has now gone full circle on quality, with shades of the late 1980s.

Can anything be done, or are we happy with the situation? Most contractors endeavour to provide the highest quality since they believe in the benefits that accurate and comprehensive information on ground conditions provides.Contractors need individuals and companies in the industry who understand that poor quality ground information will not prove costeffective in the long run to tell clients about the benefit of paying for a quality product.Most contractors would welcome the opportunity to provide this service, but it comes at a cost which they are not able to sustain in the face of falling demand.At present the industry would appear to neither value or deserve quality and this should be of concern to everyone.

Perhaps the only way to commit the industry to quality will be legislation of some kind.Enforceable codes of practice would be one solution, such that all investigations had to involve accredited drillers and testing laboratories.In addition, the use of appropriately trained and qualified staff by both consultant and contractor should always be specified.

These measures would allow industry prices to rise above the level at which they have been fixed for the last decade and would encourage contractors already committed to quality to consider full ISO 9000 accreditation.Having left it to clients and consultants to put the industry house in order and seen them fail, it may indeed be time for such radical measures.

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