Boiler inspector criteria challenged State official proposes relaxed credentials so candidates can qualify

October 16, 1997|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

State regulators who promised to sharpen oversight of public boiler systems after a severe accident in the Baltimore schools last year are proposing to weaken hiring criteria for inspectors, making Maryland's standards among the lowest in the country.

In a Sept. 22 internal memo, a top official with the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation said the agency could hasten hiring of inspectors by eliminating a key requirement: certification by the National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors. That professional group tests and licenses inspectors, and sets industry standards nationwide.

If the idea wins bureaucratic approval, Maryland would join only a handful of states that do not require potential employees to be certified by the board, although officials say the state would require them to obtain it within a year. In the meantime, their work would be limited to accompanying fellow inspectors on jobs.

Critics say it would create the potential for safety problems if unlicensed inspectors were drawn into jobs. Others characterized it as an economic boondoggle.

"The national board test is a pretty tough examination and is pretty important in my book -- it's like doctors or lawyers or anything else," said Louis Koehler of Baltimore, a retired consulting engineer and former head of the state boiler board.

"If you want to do it right, you've got to be qualified. And once you get mixed up in a government job, they have a tough time getting rid of you if you're incompetent."

The proposal follows the state's recent attempt to fill two vacancies that drew responses from mostly unqualified candidates.

"It seems the only workable solution is to modify the minimum qualifications for the position," Donna Collier, administrator for the Division of Labor and Industry, wrote in the memo. "I believe there is sufficient evidence of our largely unsuccessful attempts to recruit under the current minimum qualification to support this change."

Since a boiler accident severely burned an elementary school pupil and inspectors discovered widespread hazards in Baltimore schools last year, regulators have been under pressure to improve their inspection efforts.

Legislative auditors in the spring recommended increasing the number of state investigators and broadening their responsibilities so they more closely monitor the work of private insurance company inspectors. Like 70 percent of boiler systems statewide, the city schools were under the watch of private inspectors when the state began investigating safety problems last year.

Regulators hope to increase their eight-member unit by four positions next year. But of eight recent candidates, only one held the required national board commission, according to Collier's memo.

"We ran ads, we got applications, there were some terrific candidates," said Ileana C. O'Brien, deputy commissioner of labor and industry. "We need a hiring strategy to give us the opportunity to bring some of these people in. I don't think it detracts in any way from our standards."

Once hired, the uncommissioned inspectors would undergo training at state expense and remain on probation until passing the national exam -- a process she said could take up to one year.

The idea is not untested. O'Brien said that before the state abolished a "temporary" job category about two years ago, the department over five years hired two inspectors who were without national board credentials. One passed the exam about six weeks later, the other six months later.

Others say the agency could avoid the hassle and attract qualified candidates with a simpler approach -- more money.

Maryland ranks near the bottom on a state-by-state salary survey conducted last year by the national board. That report puts Maryland's median salary for boiler inspectors at about $31,000, compared with the national figure of about $40,000.

"They have two choices: They can decide to up their salaries, which will attract people, or they have to do some concrete recruitment," said Todd Mitchell, who runs an executive search firm in New Hyde Park, N.Y., that specializes in placing boiler and machinery professionals.

He said he was aware of only two other states that were willing to hire inspectors without the national license.

"There are individuals all over the country who would love to come to the Chesapeake Bay area. But the state, and all states, have to compete with private industry. An insurance company will pay $45,000 to someone to do the same job."

Pub Date: 10/16/97

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