Three Points of Contact

Working in construction, apprentices are part of life. I started as one. I knew nothing. The apprentices we have starting now? They know less. This isn't a rant against millenials, it seems popular to pile distrust on the young on the TV and in the papers at the moment, they always seem to forget they have done this for time immemorial. It's the fate of old men to believe young men are idiots, but only because they are.

When I was young, I did lots of stupid things. Partly because I didn't know better, partly because no one around me knew better either. The things we used to do on site then would get you marched off site now, and that's probably for the best. It's easy to dismiss health and safety as trying to bubble wrap the world, but I've got enough old friends who had to find something else to do or live on benefits because we didn't have hard hats, or the right sort of straps to hold something, or no one knew how dumb riding on a pallet on a fork truck was.

Things I wish I'd known as a young man working up in the air...

Three points of contact

I've walked around a lot of roofs, beams, worked on the sides of buildings. The nags about always keeping three points of contact are right. I've had three near misses when I've been hurrying and stretching, falling. The last one left me with a long patch of missing skin on my arm where the hair will never grow again and I have to watch in the sun now it's grown back. I was lucky. Damned lucky. Also, thank God for the NHS and pretty nurses to make your stay a little brighter.

When you're up high, keep your brain in gear. It's easy to think you can catch your balance again, or jump somewhere, or that it will all work out. For me, it always did. I can name four guys it didn't work out for, one of them is lucky, he gets to use a wheelchair now, but he's still around. The bit of our brains that are still monkeys are sure there's another branch to catch on the way down. On a building site, there isn't. Make sure you don't need to catch anything in the first place.

Use a lift or boom where you can

Booms and scissor lifts now are amazing devices. When they were first used on site? Well, I wouldn't say exactly dodgy, but you can understand why people would still want to use ladders and scaffold, I certainly did. But a modern machine now? Brilliant things. Get you up in the air smoothly, you can position them right next to what you need to do, without bashing a hole in it, do you work and sod off to do something else. All while your scaffold monkeys are putting their poles together.

Learning to use booms is a bit of a pain, but well worth it as it'll move you up the slippery pole of jobs you can do. A card with a few dozen hours of proper onsite use is a goldmine when there's not a lot of work around and you've been the only one bothered to get trained up.

If you think a job can use a boom, it's probably best to hire one rather than buy. That's the way most of the sites I've worked on have done it. That way, you get a new or at least well maintained machine, and the maintenance headaches aren't yours. I'm not an engineer, I don't want to be poking about with anything more complicated than an oil change on my car. If the lift conks out, I get to yell for someone else to fix it while I get on with something else. Making the tea, if I can get away with it. I've had fine results hiring from these folk as I've worked on jobs all over England and Wales and they're everywhere.

Harnesses are not trying to stop you working

When you're high up on a boom's arm, it can be tempting to think you'll be better off without a harness. Then if the thing starts to fall, you can jump out and on to a roof or somewhere else safe.

Stop kidding yourself. That's your monkey brain talking again. Give it a banana and tell it to shut up.

After a fellow idiot managed to jump himself right out of the cage of our boom driving it too fast on site when he found a rock in the mud, I changed my tune on harnesses. They're a pain, but worth getting used to. I've never had to sit hanging by any of mine, but I've come closer than I like to think.

Safety officers care more for you than you do

While it is true that safety officers are hired only if they've failed all the personality tests and assured your boss they don't have one, deep down inside they care more about your skin than you do. Yes, they get in the way and slow the job down. Yes, they're overly picky to the point of stupidity. Listen to them. Maybe knock it off a bit so you don't get quite as picky as they are, but chill out and do as they say most of the time. It can be annoying when you're in a rush, but it'll help you live to a ripe old age of fartdom when people ask you to spout advice as if you know exactly what you're doing. Which I don't, I just know more than you do.

Some people can't be taught

I could write a whole load about the people I've met onsite who are so stubborn or deaf to good sense that they have to learn everything the hard way. Lets just say... Don't be one of those people. If you're trying to do a job and an old fart such as yours truly is trying to offer a way of doing it, try listening and giving it a go their way, you know, just for a change.

The old farts on site may not be perfect, they may have some weird ways of working from habits built up in the old days, no doubt I do as well. But also, we've been there and done that more times than we like to count. You will find your own way of doing things, but at least give our way a go. The odder a method seems, the more likely we've learnt how to do something the hard way, and so long ago the way we know is now just habit and we can't explain exactly why we do it, just the how. Please, give it a go.

If you can be taught, you'll go far in construction. Run your own team? No problem. Run a whole site? Damn straight. Run your own business? Oh yes, some of the best learners I've seen have gone on to great things, much more than I've ever done. All they did was listen a bit, apply it, then listen to someone else, apply that, and suddenly they know all you need to know about all the jobs, and they're employing other people to do them instead. Wish I'd been bright enough to do some more of that myself. Maybe sometimes I can't be taught either.

Alan has spent many years working high up in the air, all across the UK. He'd tell you about all the idiots he's seen trying to work on building sites in trainers and up in the air with no clue, but wants to keep working so writes about how it should be done instead.