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Skills gap threatens cooling sector’s safety and environmental aims

A shortage of skilled technicians will make it increasingly difficult for the refrigeration and air conditioning sector to adopt new ‘alternative’ refrigerants, which are critical to achieving greenhouse gas reduction targets, according to the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).

The Association’s head of technical Graeme Fox told this week’s F-Gas Question Time hosted by RAC magazine that too many operatives had out-of-date practical skills and were unfamiliar with renewable technologies and the flammable refrigerants that were quickly taking over from global warming gases.

He confirmed that DEFRA was looking urgently at the situation and considering how it might legislate to improve the certification arrangements for the sector. He also urged employers to upskill their engineers to equip them for a rapidly changing marketplace.

The UK has agreed to continue ‘mirroring’ European F-Gas legislation and phasing down the use of HFC gases in refrigeration and air conditioning equipment. This will lead to rapid deployment of alternative refrigerants in their place – many of which are flammable.

“A shortage of skilled technicians is a barrier to the uptake of alternatives,” Mr Fox told the online event. “We also need to raise awareness of the dangers posed by untrained contractors working with flammable gases.

“All A2Ls [the classification designating a flammable gas] are safe to handle if you know what you are doing, but too many don’t recognise the difference between working with a mildly flammable gas like R32 and R290 (propane) which is more explosive.”

He said all engineers should be required to regularly refresh their practical skills to keep pace with changing technologies and refrigerants and criticised the complacency that allowed “evergreen” certification like City & Guilds 2079 to remain valid without a regular re-registration process to keep skills up to date.

Peter Wood of the wholesaler Wolseley added that A2Ls were coming fast, but too many people working in the sector were “ignorant” about how to use them safely. “The contractor base needs a lot more training because a juggernaut is coming, and you will get run over.”

The expert panel at the Question Time session also expressed concern about the number of heating engineers transitioning into refrigerant work because of the growth in heat pump installations. Many are attending short courses and then calling themselves heat pump installers when the panel stressed they should have a NVQ Level 2 or equivalent qualification and two years’ experience to be able to carry out heat pump installations competently.

Mr Fox told the session that BESA’s online training Academy would soon be relaunching its F-Gas renewal process with the ACRIB Flammables course embedded within it to ensure everyone renewing their qualification was automatically subjected to testing that covered the new alternative gases.

“This is all part of the ‘golden thread’ of competence that will be expected to run throughout the whole industry following the Hackitt Review and the appointment of the new building safety regulator,” said Mr Fox. “The RAC sector will have to catch up with this because we expect policing of safety issues to be much stricter from now on.”

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