The importance of an adequate and well-coordinated coating system cannot be overstated. Many industries rely on the passive corrosion protection offered by coatings to ensure long-lasting and problem-free operation. Lack of coating quality can be detrimental to an asset, often requiring considerable time and cost for maintenance and repair efforts. (Prevent some coating defects by reading 5 Coating Defects That Can Be Avoided By Adhering To Coating Specs.)
According to a study conducted by NACE, $108.6 billion is spent on organic coatings and metallic coatings in the U.S. alone. The same study also estimates that 50% of all corrosion costs are preventable, with 85% of these being related to coatings. These statistics highlight the importance of ensuring the quality of applied coatings.
This realization has significantly contributed to the rise of dedicated professionals in the field of quality management. This field, which comprises of quality control (QC) and quality assurance (QA) specialists, help ensure that coatings are applied as specified so that they may perform as expected.
However, while many projects employ these professionals, the boundary between quality control and quality assurance is often blurred.
Demystifying the Difference Between Quality Assurance vs Quality Control
To understand the job of a quality assurance (QA) specialist, it is crucial first to understand the difference between quality control and quality assurance.
Quality control (QC) in the paint and coatings industry involves the set of processes and activities aimed at finding or correcting defects in finished coated surfaces. Professionals in this field use various tools, testing and inspection techniques to verify that all works performed meet or exceed minimum standards established by the project specifications. A defining characteristic of QC is that most activities take place in the field. (To learn more about QC, see What Does Quality Control Mean in the Corrosion and Coatings Industry?)
In contrast, QA is a broader approach that is focused on eliminating defects at the source. It involves ensuring that the appropriate processes and systems are in place to produce a high-quality end product. In the paint and coatings industry, QA is a holistic approach that seeks to identify any procedural factors that may influence the coating process.
QC personnel are usually employees of the contractor. QA specialists, on the other hand, are typically independent third-parties hired by the client or asset owner. It is, therefore, necessary to clearly define these roles to avoid conflicts of interest and breakdown of the quality management system.
The Role of Quality Assurance Specialists in the Paint and Corrosion Industry
As mentioned before, QA is more process oriented. The main job of persons in this field is to verify the adequacy of the contractor’s QC process. Therefore, having a QA specialist on a project does not relieve the contractor of their QC duties. QA specialists may, therefore, be responsible for reviewing the contractor’s QC proposed testing methodology to ensure that the techniques used by the contractor are in-line with the project specifications. After testing, the QA specialist may also review test reports to ensure that the reported results reflect the quality of the work. Occasionally these professionals may also observe QC testing on the field or may even perform actual spot testing periodically.
Since the QA is subcontracted to the asset owner (who has a contractual relationship with the contractor), QA specialists can exert control of the job through the contract. In other words, if the contractor fails to correct non-conformances or meet minimum job specifications, they have the authority to halt work or even withhold payment. However, QA personnel should exercise judgment so as to not unduly interrupt project progress, as this may give rise to contractual and budgetary issues.
To minimize delays due to non-conformances, it is often helpful, if not necessary, to have the QC inspector and the job foreman/supervisor present during QA auditing and observations. By having all parties present during the QA process, deficiencies can be identified and verified by all parties. This, in turn, gives the contracting team clear guidance on specific remedial areas, thus minimizing delays.
QA specialists can be either full-time or part-time on a project as required. They typically perform their QA duties at predefined stages, known as hold points. For example, a QA specialist may decide to review the contractor’s QC process following surface preparation. As such, both QA and QC are needed to verify total compliance and quality of work. If QA is not present, half of the quality management process is lost.
Responsibilities of a Quality Assurance Specialist
The specific duties of QA personnel vary widely from project to project. However, their main task on most assignments is to verify that the work performed by the contractor’s QC inspector meets the minimum job requirements. This involves numerous activities including, but not limited to:
- Auditing and reviewing contractor documentation, such as method statements, reports and test results
- Identifying non-conformances and communicating them in a report format
- Developing corrective actions to address any non-conformances found
Depending on the industry and the specific project, QA may also include refining quality management systems. This usually involves developing or making improvements to processes as they relate to contractor reporting and communication, document control and overall presentation of QC test results.
What Qualifications are Necessary to Become a QA Specialist?
Like their roles and responsibilities, the qualifications of a QA specialist vary by project and market sector. At the very least, QA personnel in the paint and coatings industry need to have a working knowledge of various coatings, their application methods, and recognized industry coating standards and specifications.
For coatings in high-risk sectors such as the oil and gas, nuclear and specialty chemicals industry, QA personnel may be required to possess an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in a relevant field (Chemistry, Industrial Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, etc.). There are also dedicated degree programs in the area of Quality Management Systems, which may also be required by some firms.
QA specialists must interact with and in some cases manage personnel from various disciplines. As such, some projects may require individuals to be Project Management Professional (PMP) certified, although this requirement is not common.
In addition to technical knowledge, QA personnel should also possess the following soft skills:
- Ability to communicate clearly and efficiently both written and orally
- Meticulous attention to detail
- Mentoring skills
- Ability to solve problems and recommend solutions to various coating-related non-conformances
QA, unfortunately, is a job description that is misunderstood across numerous industries, including paints and coatings. To give a rough summary, QC is a reactive approach that involves coating inspections and testing. QC personnel are usually employed by the contractor. On the other hand, QA is a proactive approach that involves developing processes aimed at verifying QC procedures. QA personnel are typically subcontracted to the owner.
By establishing clear responsibilities, QA specialists can make meaningful contributions to the total quality management process. Some benefits of having dedicated QA specialists on a project team include:
- Reduction in duplicate documentation and inspection
- Reducing conflicts with contractors
- Minimized over- or under-inspections
- And most importantly, enhanced asset protection and longevity