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A Safety Evolution

Published: 15th Dec 2015

James Pretty focuses on training and development, through the lens of his personal experiences.

We are always being told that learning and development of a workforce is a key part of any successful business. There are many barriers to this, however, worker attitude being just one. Some individuals are self-motivated, with a genuine drive and determination to work hard and do the best they can; others turn up to a training course simply because they are following orders. These people are happy that they are getting paid for being away from the workplace, but ultimately they rarely benefit, forgetting most, if not all, of the information taught to them relatively quickly. Other barriers to learning and development include financial pressures, lack of commitment by senior management and poor understanding of the need for quality training and internal processes that support development. I can say these things because I have experienced them, both as the student who was asked to complete training by an employer and as a qualified health and safety trainer, mobile access equipment and plant instructor/examiner.

It was 2007 when I began my fledgling career in heavy industry as an operator/labourer, working for a newly formed enterprise. Nearly eight years on I am now a mobile access equipment and plant instructor/examiner, as well as a Technical Member of IOSH (Institute of Occupational Safety and Health), holding TechIOSH status. This ‘evolution’ has not occurred overnight, nor has it finished, with many factors being involved.

First steps

The first job I mentioned was for an innovative firm created to recycle Gypsum Plasterboard and reuse the core product of gypsum and its associated by-products, e.g. paper. This process was to involve the use of both fixed and mobile equipment, turning a waste product into something of value. So there I began, in September 2007, hired to facilitate the development of processes (whether human or machinery) in an old sugar factory, where I helped fit out the site, install and ensure safe use of equipment.

Having very little background in this type of work, it was important that I received appropriate supervision, instruction and training. This was promptly organised by my employer and was my first foray into mobile equipment, as well as giving me my first glimpse into the world of training and development, with an emphasis on health and safety. My training was organised with a local Grimsby company accredited to deliver mobile plant instruction and assessment. The instructor was tasked with providing a transfer of knowledge in the safe use of telescopic handlers and wheeled loading shovel equipment. By plant and equipment standards these were no beasts, with a small Dieci 30.9 Runner weighing in at 8,000kg and a Caterpillar IT 14G weighing 8,450kg. In comparison to my motor vehicle, however, a little Fiat Siecento Hatchback – weighing in at a paltry 750kg – they were mechanical dinosaurs, ready to punish the slightest mistake. Understandably, my excitement was tempered by the inherent risks of operating such equipment. The instructor put me at ease, showing great patience and always having a kind word to go with the seemingly never ending supply of knowledge. I was immediately an enthusiast for this type of equipment, willing and eager to learn from someone who was clearly skilled and knowledgeable in safe operations of such plant. Questions, questions and more questions were posed following theory and practical elements of the training.

The instructor conducted the training on our own equipment at our own site, which reassured me somewhat as I knew that when the courses were complete I was not going to suddenly be thrown onto a completely alien piece of equipment, which is what many companies do, e.g. not familiarising operators in a ‘safe’ environment with supervision. I absorbed as much knowledge as possible. The result? Two International Trading Standards Scheme and Register (ITSSAR) qualifications to operate mobile equipment. Of course I was pleased with this success, I felt invincible. I thought I had all the knowledge and skills I ever needed, however, just like driving a car, it was only then that I really learned how to operate the machinery. On several occasions, inexperience and overconfidence caught me off guard, resulting in some interesting situations. While some of these were painful more for the equipment than myself, I did learn that it was part of my development, and that the skills were only going to get better, with constant practice through exposure to the plant and operational experience.

With renewed optimism and determination, and having progressed to Shift Supervisor with the company, I then set my sights on becoming an HSE professional and began a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) level 3 in Occupational Health and Safety. I was also tasked with giving new employees familiarisation training, which was a process of demonstrating safe use of equipment to operators, and monitoring them until they were deemed able to use the equipment by themselves, in order to fulfil a competence assessment undertaken by me as the supervisor. This merely complimented any official training and qualifications they already possessed, and allowed the company to monitor staff skills. Just as it looked like I had a prospective career with the outfit the global financial crisis took hold and both funding and training were cut; ultimately the developing company struggled to stay afloat. Frustrated at having made no more progress over a period of two years, I decided to move on to my next opportunity.

Progress

A foray into alternative employment wasn’t fruitful, so I headed back into plant operations, joining an Immingham based company as a labour hire plant operator. Initially I operated equipment similar to during my previous employment, but this time the product to be moved was coal. As I progressed the company gave me further training, which involved using specialist attachments such as shredder buckets and push blades, as well as being given the opportunity to become a Caterpillar 988g operator. Out of 35 pieces of plant, there was only one such 50 ton beast in the entire fleet, so the pressure was on to show that I could use the equipment effectively, and equally as importantly, safely.

To go from equipment a bit larger than a truck to approaching the size of a house was very daunting. My supervisors gave me some great machine familiarisation training, to the point where I became the main operator of this equipment. I also became an unofficial part of the supervisory team, running the staff, equipment and operations of one particular part of the site. All this came from my thirst for knowledge and progress, something that continues to drive me to this day.

Australia

Having yearned to live and work in Australia, I emigrated on a Temporary Visa and began working in a rock quarry near Darwin, Northern Territory. It was a small, privately run operation, and boy could you tell. Ancient equipment was always breaking down and there was no induction or training – I was just handed the keys to the machines and told to get on with it. While the company knew of my plant operations experience, I was given no induction, medical or equipment familiarisation. The company’s attitude was “if you’ve operated one machine, you’ve operated them all”. This was inherently dangerous, as not only was I operating makes and models of equipment that were unfamiliar to me, I was also asked to operate totally alien equipment that I had never seen, let alone used. This concerned me greatly. Despite approaching various people on site about my worries, I was told in no uncertain terms to “get on with it”, so I left the operation and sought a position with a different company.

A short time later I was offered another position, this time working at the Mt Bundy Rock Quarry Operation. The difference in attitude to HSE and training was immediately apparent: I had to have an extensive medical before I could even set foot on the site. After a site induction on my first day, I was then tasked with operating the loading shovel equipment. The company also operated a competence scheme, which involved being trained on-site to use various equipment and hardware by staff already competent and experienced in their use and operation. This was similar to some machine familiarisation I had received before, but far more extensive. The training was carried out over a period of a few days to a week depending on the plant type and it’s use, before the quarry manager then made a final competence assessment. With such extensive training the skills of my colleagues and I grew exponentially. Over a period of several weeks I went from operating two plant types to seven, and I got to learn new skills such as rigging and slinging, automation operations, blast guard and other blasting activities. Additionally and willingly, I also became involved in developing traffic control procedures, improvement of site rules, and plant and equipment monitoring. This was actively encouraged by the quarry manager who rewarded my interest and willing with further development and training. Indeed, I became the person responsible for machine and equipment familiarisation for new employees, ensuring their competence to operate the equipment before the final decision by the quarry manager was made. This experience filled me with pride, and after several years of operations and supervision, this gave me my first serious glimpse of an alternative career path.

The company and I did what we could to secure my permanent residence in Australia, but fell short due to governmental administration issues. So while these were two of the best years of my life, it was then back to the UK to try and secure a job and ponder my future.

The transition to instructor

After a few months of struggling for work in what was then a terrible economic climate, I was contacted by a good friend and former colleague. The company he worked for in the Middle East had an opening for a forklift truck training instructor. The catch? I had to have an instructor qualification, which at the time was something I lacked. With a deadline given to me, it was then a race against time to obtain the qualifications I needed to take this next career step.

With my instructor course booked, I was given some help and advice pre-course by a local company, with whom I had undergone initial plant training in 2007 and had attended their training centre for current UK familiarisation and certification for my instructor course. When asked the reason why I was doing these courses, I mentioned the job offer in the Middle East. Both senior instructors were pleased at my progress and allowed me to shadow them and other instructors to gain some insight into full-time training. It was intriguing to see how each instructor differed in their style and use of training techniques. Some were full of information, encyclopedic almost, lecturing their students in the minutest details; others preferred to teach through leadership and examples of how to do things the right way, with diagrams, videos and demonstrations. While I was used to the simplistic ‘monkey see, monkey do’ approach from my time in machine familiarisation, the classroom elements and techniques used were completely alien to me. I tried to focus on the latter as much as possible in preparation for my own course.

My instructor course focused on key techniques for training delivery, plus practical application of driving and examining other delegates. During the course, the operation of the equipment was not too difficult. Applying the new teaching techniques, however, especially in the classroom, at first proved daunting. With some practice I got used to public speaking, creating presentations and training materials, and being firm but fair when performing assessments and giving feedback. Being taught these new physical and behavioural soft skills, I was amazed at the variety of tools a full-time trainer is ‘armed’ with. Despite having attended various training courses, I did not even realise that some of these techniques were being used. Reaching the end of the course, I was filled with pride at all the knowledge I had gained, and the glowing feedback I was given by the instructors. I was even offered a full-time job, should the Middle East opportunity fall through.

Having completed the course I immediately sent off all my paperwork and was successful in getting the job.

Full-time training

I was very surprised at how quickly I was able to apply all I had learned. My training also opened my eyes to the importance of recognising that different people learn in different ways, so it is critical to be able to use as many different teaching techniques as possible to maximise the chances of successful learning by delegates. Indeed, I have been able to help students achieve passes in their courses, even when there has been a language barrier.

Attitude is something I have also been challenged by. I have had several students who initially did not take training seriously, and told me that I could not teach them anything new. Having seen my presentations, videos and demonstrations, however, those people were soon onside. Showing people the consequences of not doing the job safely, through accident case studies and videos, allows them to visualise and subsequently realise they should never do something just because they are told to.

The benefits of training

So what has this evolution taught me? Whereas before I often wondered what the point of a risk assessment was, or only completed a pre-use check sheet for maintenance and service reasons, I now see how these processes are an integral part of safety. I can also now explain to people the importance and benefits of these Safe Systems of Work and the critical importance of training.

Attitude is key to learning. By explaining the importance of training, and how beneficial it really is, I hope to demonstrate that training is more than just an administrative exercise. For example, the fact that someone has 20 years of experience in a particular field does not mean they have been doing the job the right way for 20 years. With regulations and standards changing regularly, training is critical to ensuring everyone has the right information to do the job the right way, and more importantly, the safe way.

It is important that the right attitude permeates down from the top. Directors and management of some companies see training as a necessary evil. Others see it as a regulatory requirement that is a drain on their bottom-line. What they do not see or understand are the benefits and cost savings of fewer incidents and accidents, breakdowns, injuries and illnesses that are a direct result of the training delivering competence to the business. Without this competence, a lack of knowledge in their organisation could cost them far more than money, due to loss of reputation, assets, and most importantly, the lives of their workforce. Training will also allow natural progression within business units, keeping skills and knowledge within the organisation by allowing junior members of staff to take over from experienced members who may leave the business unit through promotion or retirement.

This evolution has also shown me that training is a never-ending process. Once one goal is achieved, there is always another challenge to look forward to. These goals could be set by you or your employer and may not always be easy to accomplish. Some of these goals could take years to achieve, though that should not deter us from maintaining or improving our knowledge and skill set. I was once told by an experienced operator that “you learn something new every single day” and never has truer a word been spoken.

Published: 15th Dec 2015 in Health and Safety Middle East

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HSE professional, holding Technician status with the Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (TechIOSH). James is an approved NEBOSH and IOSH Trainer, and specialises in Materials Handling Equipment Training, for which he is a qualified instructor through ITSSAR (International Trading Standards Scheme and Register), and RTITB (Road Transport Industry Training Board).