Changing Alberta Safety Codes Inspections

A change is coming, in the New Year, to permitting and inspections for construction projects in the unaccredited areas of the province. As of the 1st of January, 2016 the responsibility for overseeing the permitting and inspections in the unaccredited areas of the province will transfer from Alberta Municipal Affairs to the Alberta Safety Codes Authority (ASCA). This transfer of responsibility led to a complete review of the system in place for how permits are issued and the quality of the inspections being performed in unaccredited areas. The biggest changes to come out of the review are in the level of oversight and auditing of the agencies issuing and servicing the permits, as well as a change to how the price of a permit is set. Agencies will be audited much more frequently to help ensure that they’re meeting the requirements of the Act in gathering all the information from permit applicants and also performing at least the minimum number of on-site inspections.

Permit prices, in most cases, will go up to better reflect the true cost of the work being performed and the price of permits will be set by ASCA, not the individual agencies. For contractors who’ve worked in accredited municipalities the ASCA fee structure will be very familiar, with set prices for specific types of work. Under Alberta Municipal Affairs, the cost of a permit was mandated to define maximum permit fees but the agencies could decide what to charge for each permit they issued, as long as they stayed below the maximums. This allowed agencies to compete by lowering the price of a permit, which made it so that similar jobs could have very different permit prices from one agency to another and it encouraged contractors to shop jobs around before settling on an agency. While this was desirable for the permit holder whose only concern was cost, it created an environment where agencies couldn’t cover the costs of travel and wages unless there were a number of permits in close proximity to be inspected on the same day. With the vast distances to be covered and the reality that there are many remote areas where construction is taking place, it may not be reasonable to expect an individual safety codes officer to be able to safely reach and inspect more than a handful of installations in remote areas in a single day. The new pricing scheme, under ASCA, will bring some stability back to the agencies with consistent permit prices from agency to agency and the ability to compete based on their customer service, rather than cost. There are also benefits to project planners and contractors in knowing what to budget for permits before they actually apply for one, and there will be less time wasted shopping around for a better price.

The increased permit prices will also give ASCA the ability to have sufficient staffing levels to better oversee the agencies to verify that they’re meeting their obligations under the Act and their contractual obligations with ASCA. Money collected from permit applicants is now held by ASCA and then only paid to the agency at predetermined stages within the permit process. This also helps to increase oversight and will help to prevent an agency from issuing a large number of permits and then neglecting their responsibilities to service those permits, because the agency doesn’t get paid until they have performed the work and have documented it. By adopting this process of paying agencies, it creates incentive for the agency to check in with permit holders more regularly, reducing the incidents where the contractors cover their work before it can be inspected or forget altogether to call for inspections. More importantly, if something happens to the agency the permit holder has the security that ASCA has the money so that another agency can take over the permit and the funds are already available to service the permit through to the end of the project.

A major driving force behind the decision to change the way inspections are performed in the unaccredited areas of the province, was recognition that there was some disparity in the level of service from what could be expected in many of the accredited municipalities to the unaccredited areas in Alberta. In an accredited municipality the safety codes officers have a limited area to serve and no competition from other agencies for the permits within the municipality. These conditions mean that the travel costs are more readily shared between several permit holders and there is a greater density of permits to service within those limited boundaries so that the agency could service the permits in a cost effective manner. Alberta Municipal Affairs and ASCA believe that there shouldn’t be a difference in the level of service that a permit holder receives depending on whether or not they are in an accredited or unaccredited municipality. Every Albertan should be able to expect to live and work in buildings that meet the respective discipline’s codes, because the level of code compliance in a building corresponds directly to the level of safety for the building occupants.

What doesn’t change when ASCA takes over is the way that contractors and owners apply for their permits. Permit applicants will still give the agency the money for the permit, will still apply for the permit, and will still schedule the inspections through the agency of their choosing. The only noticeable differences will be in the cost of a permit and, hopefully, more thorough inspections. Almost all of the same agencies have agreed to continue issuing permits under ASCA, and Marex Canada Limited is one of them. We will update our website with the new permit fee schedules as soon as we can after they are finalized and approved, and do our best to keep our customers informed and up to date.

Written by Blake Allen,

Senior Building, Plumbing and Gas SCO