Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Today I'd like to talk about Caltrans certifications.

If you are unaware, Caltrans is the Department of Transportation entity in California and is our indirect customer in the aggregate and asphalt industry. We sell our materials to construction contractors and they use those materials to build the state's roads, bridges, parking lots, etc. It's a multi billion dollar industry.

One of the ways that Caltrans ensures that it is getting the best products for their tax payers' money is by writing specifications and requiring the products used in their projects to abide by these specifications. Now I could spend weeks talking about specifications, and most likely I will in the future, but today I'm going to focus on one part of their specifications which is the testing and certification requirements. Caltrans' standard specifications is a pretty thick book that has the rules on anything from how the contractor will be paid, to the gradation of rock used, to how the materials will be installed. A pdf version of these specifications can be downloaded for free or the bound book can be ordered at Section 6-3 talks about the general testing requirements for the materials used in their projects, and it is here that you will find the requirement that all tests must "be performed in accordance with the methods used by the Department of Transportation."

Although, as I mentioned yesterday, ASTM is a greatly respected source of test methods, Caltrans has devised and/or revised new test methods that they feel suit their state's needs better. These test methods are often extremely similar to the ASTM methods with slight changes. However, the biggest difference to me as a person who spends most of the day trying to reduce costs is that the Caltrans test methods are FREE. Stocking a laboratory with a full set of relevant ASTM test methods can cost hundreds of dollars and every time there is a change to a test method you have to pay more money to get the new version. Caltrans, on the other hand offers all of their test methods and revisions at for no charge. In addition, the state will certify your laboratory at close to no charge as well, which is also different from ASTM.

Which finally brings me to certifications, specifically Caltrans certifications. You may wonder why a laboratory needs certifications at all. I mean, we've trained our people, they run the tests every day, and frankly the majority of the test results are only used in house anyways. The answer is simple. Credibility. Sure you could forgo getting your lab certified, I've worked at several locations whose lab was not certified, but it's basically free, so for the small cost of training and a couple of days with a state employee you could have a laboratory whose test results will be taken serious if you ever have a dispute with a contractor over the quality of your product or god forbid you had to go to court over it.

So you might be convinced that we should certify the lab but why should you have to re-certify every year? Think of it this way, every year your hot plant's scales get re-calibrated. They do this because over time things happen that can change the accuracy of the scale and make it less reliable. You calibrate every year whether you have seen warning signs or not just to be sure that you can be confident in your plant's weights. The same thing goes for technicians. For one, there are several test methods that the technician may only run once every couple of months. How long has it been since that technician read the test method? Does the technician review the revisions for each test method as it comes out and does he adjust his testing to meet the new rules? On the other hand, yes, the technician may run the same test ten times a day every day but is he doing it by the book every time? I strongly believe that it is natural human nature to find ways to make things easier and more efficient. Unfortunately that usually means cutting corners and skipping steps. The technician may skip a step here or there to save himself some time. Over the next few months he might end up skipping that step every time he does the test and after awhile might forget the correct way to do it, or worse yet, teach another technician the wrong way to do it. Re-certifying your technicians is a great double check for your laboratory. It reminds your technician to reread the test method, to run through it with their lab supervisor before being tested by the state, and overall to do it right. It's insurance for you so that you know that your technicians know how to do the test method correctly and that is extremely important in having credibility with your contractors and the state.
There are two major types of certifications with Caltrans, a laboratory certification and individual technician certifications on the test methods. Both of these certifications are controlled by the Caltrans Independent Assurance (IA) Program. Information for the Caltrans IA program can be found at the Caltrans IA Program Website although as I am posting this I acknowledge that a lot of the links do not work, sorry about that, but as you'll find, that seems to be a common theme with Caltrans. Sometimes finding the information you need is unnecessarily difficult but hopefully this blog can help lead you to the right places. The link on that website leading to the IA manual doesn't work but here is a link to the pdf file. Caltrans IA Manual. This manual is basically the bible for getting your laboratory and technicians certified by Caltrans. If you have a laboratory, whether you are already certified or not, I would recommend that you read through this as it gives you a lot of insight into what to expect from the state and how to prepare for their visit. Also, I should note that the manual I have linked to is the 2005 version which replaced the 2001 version. Take a look at the version you've been using and make sure that you have the most up to date version.

Some basic things to note with the IA program:
1. Testers have to take both a written and practical exam for test method certifications
2. Testers must take the practical exam within 3 months of the written exam
3. Lab certifications are based on the equipment required for each test method performed in the lab. You can certify a lab in only one certification or as many others as you want
4. You must put together and submit a laboratory accreditation manual
5. Having a safe work environment is part of your lab accreditation
6. You must calibrate and submit records for your laboratory equipment on an annual basis. A sticker must be affixed to the equipment stating the last date calibrated and additional other information
7. Your lab must participate in the Caltrans Reference Sample Program (RSP) which is where Caltrans sends your lab a duplicated sample for one of the tests your lab performs and your lab is to test the sample and send the results to Caltrans to confirm that your lab is capable of obtaining accurate test results.
8. Both technician certifications and laboratory certifications expire after 1 year. You must re-certify annually if you want to maintain your certification

These points do not even begin to summarize what can be found in the ninety page IA Manual so once again I would recommend reading the manual in its entirety but you get the point for now. What I would like to add to all of this is that you will most likely struggle with keeping your certifications up to date if you do not track them and stay on top of them. Generally you will need to give your IA inspector 30 days notice of when your certifications will expire and you need to be re-certified. Yes, you read that correctly. It is YOUR responsibility to let the state know when you need an inspector and to schedule the visit. It is not their responsibility and you will find your self in a very sticky situation if you wait for them to call you. So be sure to look to the future and schedule your inspections early so that you can be sure to keep your certifications up to date. Some inspectors seem to get overbooked and busy and they may let you know that they will not penalize you for being overdue on the certification and will re-certify you weeks after your certifications expire. If you can help it at all you should stand strong against this and insist (in a polite and positive way) that your certifications be renewed before your expiration date. Although the IA inspector may not penalize you, if your certifications are not current for the week that you pull and test samples of a material, that data could be thrown out in court because your credibility (your certifications) was non-existent at the time. If you give your inspector enough notice there should be no reason that they cannot keep your certifications up to date without a gap. This is just another example of how your communication skills in the quality sector need to be top notch. Not only do you need to make sure you let the inspector know enough in advance but you also need to maintain a good relationship with this person because, lets face it, they control whether your lab gets certified or not. So play nice but stand your ground on the important issues like maintaining the credibility of your laboratory.

Credibility is one of the most important factors in Quality Control and should be monitored with care.

1 comment: