The high life!
Earlier this year at FESPA, John Tominay, Nationwide Platforms’ Business Development Manager for the Signage Division, challenged me to take an IPAF operator’s course at the company’s Leicester-based depot. Caught off-guard, I was foolhardy enough to agree. What happened next? Read on and find out!
Before we begin, I have to mention that I’m not very good with heights, so it was with a great deal of trepidation, that I set off to visit Nationwide Platforms’ Leicestershire HQ on a sunny September afternoon, first of all to learn more about Nationwide Platforms generally and MEWPs – or Mobile Elevating Work Platforms to the uninitiated – specifically, prior to taking the IPAF course the following day.
After being greeted by the perennially cheerful John Tominay, himself a former MEWP operator, who now spends much of his time ensuring that signmakers get the equipment they need, I was treated to a whistle-stop tour of the company’s extensive administration facility, with John breezily assuring me all of the while that I would be fine!
Nationwide Platforms is the UK’s largest access platform hire company, offering a fleet of more than 11,300 access platforms from a comprehensive national depot network, with John asserting: “Practically everyone lives within 40 miles of one of our depots, all of which have at least 350 units on site, which is why we can pretty much guarantee that, when it comes to access equipment, our customers can have whatever they need, whenever they need it!”
He adds that since the company is also part of the Lavendon Group plc, the world’s largest specialist access business, it also has access to a total fleet of 23,000 units worldwide.
In addition to supplying the equipment, Nationwide Platforms also provides a wide range of working at height training courses too, which include accredited International Powered Access Federation (IPAF) training courses, PASMA courses and advanced safety training. These are all arranged through the company’s external training division, headed up by Charlie Ellis and his team, who not only work tirelessly to place people on the appropriate courses – at a rate of 1,400 every month – but also to ensure that once trained, operators keep their accreditations fully up-to-date. The company also has an internal training division too, which is responsible for training its own employees.
Charlie explains that for Nationwide Platforms, safety is a primary consideration and provides me with some horrifying statistics of the accidents that have happened when working at height. For example, in 2010-11 there were a total of 115,550 accidents, 171 of them fatal, although only 72 accidents occurred when people were using MEWPs.
John attests that in the very rare instances that accidents occur when customers are using Nationwide Platforms equipment, they are reported and fully investigated as a matter of course. He explains: “We make a conscious decision to be very open about any accidents that involve our equipment, as we think this is the only way to stop them happening. A lot of accidents are down to operator error, but very often, this prompts the machine manufacturers to make a modification that will prevent that particular mistake being made again.” He goes on to add that if all access companies embraced the same degree of transparency, it would help to make working at heights much safer, saying: “As a market leader, we feel that it is up to us to set the best possible example.”
Our tour continues with a quick stopover at the Premier Hire Department, which is where key accounts are handled. Since these customers’ access requirements often span sites at many different locations, both at home and abroad, site surveys are often carried out to determine any special hazards, so that advice can be given as to the most appropriate choice of equipment.
From there, we go to a meeting with Kevin Warne, non Construction Sales Director and John Tominay’s manager.
Kevin, who is relatively new to the word of access equipment, having initially pursued an army career, followed by several years in various areas of the construction sector, tells me that although 65-70 percent of Nationwide Platforms’ equipment is used by construction related clients, other customer groups include companies operating within the telecoms, media, utilities, facilities management, pest control and sign sectors. He observes that signmakers have very particular needs, which Nationwide Platforms tries hard to address. He says: “Other clients tend to use our equipment for longer periods, whereas, with the sign industry, the need is much more specific and time sensitive. For example, if the installation team is booked to erect a sign on a Thursday morning, it’s a huge problem if the equipment doesn’t arrive until late afternoon. Knowing this, we try to tailor our service to dovetail with signmakers’ particular time constraints and also the budgetary restrictions involved with installation, which is, after all, just one part of the overall project.”
Kevin goes on to add that in order to ensue that all equipment is kept in tip-top working order, all necessary repairs and modifications are carried out daily at Nationwide Platforms depots, with the machines being automatically replaced after seven years. Referring to my forthcoming training, he kindly assures me that since he has successfully completed the course himself, he’s sure that I’ll “sail through!”, then spoils it by adding, slightly less confidently: “Just do your best!”
Thus, after a sleepless night, Friday morning finally dawns and, after a run of fine weather, I’m perturbed to see that it is both extremely windy and raining heavily! With my head still swirling with the advice I received the previous day, I present myself, fetchingly attired, at Nationwide Platforms’ Leicester Depot, where I am welcomed with coffee by instructor Steve. In response to my confession that not only am I afraid of heights, it also took me the best part of twenty years and at least seven attempts to pass my driving test, Steve asks me how good I am with a joystick. Upon seeing my expression and in order to avoid an unfortunate misunderstanding, he quickly adds: “Do you play video games?” and once again I have to admit my total deficiency in this regard too.
We adjourn to a meeting room and at this point, I am introduced to my companions on today’s course. Nick, Mick and Rick (yes, really!), are all skilled operatives, who are simply renewing their IPAF accreditations. We start with a written test to discover how much we know about MEWPs and their operation, so that Steve can assess which areas he needs to cover. Amazingly, I don’t do too badly at this, actually achieving enough right answers to scape a pass mark – although, as theory, rather than practice, is my strong point, perhaps this isn’t too surprising.
Steve then takes us through our answers one by one, illustrating his explanations with a series of short videos and slides, many of which illustrate in horrific detail, the terrible risks that people take when working at height and some of the dreadful accidents that have taken place as a result. Steve maintains that complacency is the biggest enemy of a MEWP operator, saying: “It’s when you take your eye off the ball that the trouble starts!” and truly, I begin to see that there is a lot more to this than first meets the eye. Not only does a MEWP operator have to be constantly aware of the surrounding hazards, he also has to keep a close eye on the terrain immediately ahead too, as any bumps, slopes or uneven ground can seriously de-stablise the MEWP, leading to potential disaster.
After a buffet lunch, comes the part of the day that I’ve been most dreading – the practical training begins! Happily though, as the weather outside is still foul, this takes place in the comparative comfort of the warehouse and I also note, with a great deal of relief that the ceiling height will preclude any really high elevation – phew!
We start with a scissor lift (which, I’m pleased to see, only extends to a modest height!) and, after a thorough inspection of the machine to check that all of its working parts are in order, I pass the initial hurdle of accessing the platform, while also learning what the hard hat is for! At Steve’s behest, I’m joined by the lovely Nick, who monitors my progress with the joystick, and with his gentle prompts such as: “I don’t think you want to do that, do you?” or “A bit more to the left” and, with more urgency: “No! The other way!” we move slowly and somewhat jerkily down the warehouse.
The inspection process is then repeated with a boom lift, with Nick, Mick and Rick conspiring to help me fluff my way through the check list, before Nick and I once again mount the platform and, once I’ve acclimatised myself with the slightly different controls, Steve suggests that I try to weave the machine between the cones he has set up.
This is really tricky!
Not only does the extended boom ascend far up into the roof space, it also severely tests my limited ability to differentiate left from right! Fortunately, the level of concentration required to steer it slowly between the cones, without knocking either them, or any person or thing foolhardy enough to get in my way, flying, prevents me from experiencing the severe vertigo that elevation to such a height would normally invoke. With Nick’s help, I manage to complete the exercise without mishap and then, whilst I sip a restorative cup of coffee, he, Mick and Rick demonstrate how it should be done, by each in turn using the boom to weave dextrously and speedily around a set of much more closely spaced cones, putting my feeble efforts to shame!
Finally, we all retake the written test, using the extra knowledge that we have gleaned during the day to attain full marks, whereupon Steve, after first seeking my assurances that I don’t see my future career path taking me on a detour to the sign installation sector, confirms that I am now IPAF accredited for category 3a and 3b MEWPS! And, although it’s a qualification that probably ranks right up there with my CSE Grade 4 Needlework in terms of practical usefulness, I’m absolutely thrilled!
For further information on Nationwide Platforms’ equipment, depots, and/or training courses, visit: www.nationwideplatforms.co.uk