Over 30 years in the industry, I’ve been on most sides of paint issues. I’ve owned a painting company; I’ve represented coatings; and I’m a coating consultant and inspector with an SSPC-PCS, NACE 3 and MBA.
Through all those years, I have observed the perennial debate over the role of (and even need for) the coatings inspector.
This blog will probe that question.
Let me start by providing a blanket apology to anyone I’m about to offend. I have no motivation other than to share the truth as I see it. This is simply one person thinking aloud.
The Inspector’s Role: 2 Views
What should be the inspector’s role? For some, the inspector should observe, document and report—nothing more.
Others believe that the role should be more broad. That an inspector should offer advice and, in fact, speak openly with the contractor.
I’m not talking about an inspector giving direction—though any contractor worth her salt would ignore directions by an inspector (or anyone else) unless that person was explicitly given that authority through the contract.
The only argument I’ve heard for inspectors not speaking their minds with contractors is fear of legal liability.
This has always left me scratching my (rapidly graying and thinning) scalp.
Is someone actually writing specifications and contract documents that allow a contractor to accept verbal direction from someone not in authority?
Isn’t it written into every contract that the contractor is ultimately responsible for performance?
And that no changes can be made to the specification and associated documents without something in writing?
Are there really a significant amount of inspectors being sued over this issue?
These are not rhetorical questions. I’d like to know.
Supply: The Mother of Necessity?
I know that the industry is screaming for more inspectors, and that associations that are scrambling to fill these slots.
These organizations are making money. And, like all organizations (including my own), they want to make more money.
But here’s the rub. Are we creating a stir, buzz, myth, cult or whatever-you-call-it where no painting projects can take place without an inspector on site?
Does Apple have a third-party inspector for every iPhone? Or does it train technicians to fill that role?
Does NASA hire third-party inspectors for, well, anything? I honestly don’t know.
I can tell you that my old coating company had been in business about 50 years before I left—and I was there for about 25 years.
At that time, we offered the industry’s longest guarantees (routinely 10-year, non-prorated), with a miniscule failure rate and an outstanding reputation.
And we never, ever, had a third-party inspector on site.
Here’s a case in point: Around 1994, we did some work for a Fortune 100 company that had a large, concrete, wastewater treatment tank.
The tank had been lined three times in seven years. Each lining failed.
The tank was by then in pretty bad shape, with large chunks of missing concrete and exposed rebar. After hiring a firm to ensure that it was structurally sound, they asked our advice.
1. Blast the crap out of the tank. Remove all the coating down to the concrete, and blast the rebar to white metal.
2. Spray a bunch of thick coating on the tank walls, on and behind the rebar, and into the bug holes until its goops out and runs all over the place. (Think of a runny wedding cake.)
3. Invoice the client.
Most coating manufacturers said we needed to trowel the surface smooth. Fill in all the bug-holes by hand. Smooth the pitted areas with exposed rebar. Use a primer and multiple coats. And more.
We didn’t. And this summer marks the tank's 20th year of service, with no maintenance whatsoever.
Was this unusual? Not at all. My old company has hundreds, if not thousands, of tanks that last more than 20 years without maintenance.
I’m not saying that we did anything special. I am saying that painting is not rocket science—though one might think so from reading some of our technical publications and the unfathomable number and types of two-part epoxies and other coatings.
Inspector v. Contractor
The mantra of inspectors is, “You’ve gotta watch these contractors, or they’ll cut corners.”
For contractors, it’s, “Those damn inspectors don’t know what they’re doing and don’t use any common sense.”
Left unchecked, such mindsets will lead to more animosity and mistrust between these groups.That’s great business for inspectors and the entities supplying them, but not so much for owners—or for the industry as a whole.
The Painters’ Mindset
We are involved with a project now where my inspector was having some trouble with painters cutting corners. His response: “Well, you know, painters have a different mindset.”
I once walked away from bidding on an extremely large project here in Chicago simply because of the contractor’s hostility toward the bidding vendors.
They had put into the contract a $15,000-per-day penalty for not completing operations on time. After the meeting, I overheard one contract snigger to another, “Well, my price just went up 200K.”
An Eye on Quality
The industry needs to shift. We don’t need more inspectors. We need to educate, support, motivate and incentivize contractors to build, maintain and enforce their own QA/QC programs.
In fact, is it possible that having inspectors on site incentivizes contractors to lower their level of care, knowing (or believing) that the inspector is there to catch any defects?
What if there were no inspector on site? What if the contractor had his own QA/QC program and that technician knew he could lose his job over non-compliance?
What do you think would happen to the level of quality within that organization?
False Sense of Security
It reminds me of cameras at hotel swimming pools. There have been a number of lawsuits against hotels that had cameras trained on pools where people had drowned.
In those cases, the cameras were either broken or unwatched. The plaintiffs argued that rather than enhancing safety, the cameras had provided a false sense of security to swimmers.
I run my businesses by looking for fundamental truths about technical issues and at who’s incentivized to do what.
In this case, I believe we are surrounded by well-intended, highly competent individuals, corporations and other entities that, in some cases, are poorly incentivized.