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Plant Blog

Greetings from New York. Pressing construction industry matters have brought me across the Atlantic to the thriving hub of Manhattan. The island is one of the most heavily built on parts of the world and must contain the most eccentric and eclectic mixtures of architecture.

But talk about construction to anyone over here at the moment and, crikey, they make the British sound deliriously optimistic.

With George Bush pushing through a $780 billion bale out for Wall Street executives and with house repossessions quite literally hitting the roof, New Yorkers, usually pathologically upbeat individuals, haven’t too many constructive words to say at the moment.

Although construction of the monument to the World Trade Centre is unbendingly set to finish in 2011, the rest of the scheme at Ground Zero is crawling along at a snail’s pace. Talk is that the planned transport hub to replace a destroyed metro station is also running significantly late.

Meanwhile the New York subway system is creaking away under outdated infrastructure. Recent monsoon-like downpours have left sections flooded and temporarily closed; with no proper drainage, the authorities have had to leave nature to take its course before opening some parts up again.

All this doom and gloom over this side of the Atlantic should serve as an incentive to those of us in the UK. Admittedly, business is slow at the moment, and yes, the US house building crisis has had its knock on effects in our own country.

But even the downbeat British recognize there are sections of the industry that are quite lively and a cause for optimism.

And let’s face it; Gordon Brown might not be the most electable Prime Minister in living memory, but with Bush poised to make what they’re calling here “Iraq-like legacy decision” with public money, I know who I feel safer with!

24 September 2008

Next month hail two landmarks in the plant industry. From 31 October, the revised Construction Plant Competence Scheme will come fully into effect, much to the chagrin of many in the industry.

Although the developers of the new scheme plan to cut red tape and improve operators’ understanding of health and safety, it is still guaranteed to get some people’s backs up.

It has been pretty apparent that the scheme has a few glitches – lumping concrete pumps in the same category as concrete dumpers – but its critics point to deeper cultural problems.

The wording of the questions, for example has attracted its fair share of attention. When trainers protest that exam candidates are taken out of the normal working environment, it is difficult to disagree when they are faced with questions such as this one: “Name FOUR different types or levels of sanctions that can be applied (by employers and judicial bodies) by plant operators who do not comply with, or follow legislation and regulations?”

Crikey!

However, it is important to remember that assessors can rephrase the questions so their candidates can understand them.

On 1 October too, machinery makers will stop supplying plant with semi automatic quick hitches. Trouble is that it sounds like a lot of operators like them – they like to be able to see that the safety pin is in. The deaths that have occurred seem to have been due to operational problems rather than mechanical defects.

Thankfully the developers of the revised CPCS haven’t overlooked the problem with semi automatic quick hitches and candidates can expect to be quizzed on them. Now there’s a positive move for the CPCS.

10 September 2008

The way the construction industry and its suppliers responded to four deaths involving falling excavator buckets has been amazing.

There again, looking at some sites, it hasn't. There is still a lot of debate about what the industry is doing to deal with quick hitch mechanisms after manufacturers agreed to stop supplying new machinery with semi automatic quick hitches.

It looks like some contractors will go for an outright ban, while others such as Taylor Wimpey are conducting a safety purge on their operators. And although they won't appear on new machines in the UK, some contractors consider semi automatic to be the safest quick hitches. Whereas deaths have occurred when operators haven't jumped out of the cab to manually fit the safety pin, some people say they feel safer when they can see the pin in place, rather than relying on fully automatic quick hitches.

Of course, it has to be said, this depends on the make, and some manufacturers are developing ways to make it clear that their automatic quick hitches have attached the bucket securely.

But all this is academic when contractors are ignorant to the issues of quick hitch mechanisms on site.

Visiting a house building site last week, I asked the site manager what hitches the excavators were using while contractors carried out the groundworks in front of us. Although he was a capable and knowledgeable man, he couldn't answer other than to say they were a generic quick hitch.

As usual, the guys jumped in to work in the trench with the excavator bucket hanging over them. What guarantees could we give to their families that they would return home safe and sound that evening?

27 August 2008

JCB has carried on with the revamp of its UK operations and has moved its heavy products division into a new £40 million site in Utoxeter. Admittedly, when the company first looked at rejigging its UK production, it was also looking at a construction industry on a high with record results and today's losses at Taylor Wimpey were almost unfeasible. The firm believes it will benefit from the move when markets recover.

Terex also made a bold statement about the UK market with the launch of three track loaders. The company was in an upbeat mood at the launch in Warwick last week with talk of taking on Bobcat and Caterpillar before an invigorating round of clay pigeon shooting. Its hotshot 1.5 tonne PT30 looked suitably new to the market and looked fit for carving a niche in grounds maintenance.

The final big bold move of the week was Doosan's acquisition of Norwegian dump trucks firm Moxy. This probably looks like the most recession proof of the three stories with a strong presence in the booming mining industry and a target audience in the Far East. Doosan says it is on course to achieve its goal of becoming one of the top three plant firms by 2012.

Watch this space for more bold moves.

13 August 2008

If soaring fuel prices weren't criminal enough, it looks like diesel is now a target for enterprising thieves.

Haulage firms have been under attack in ever more ambitious robberies, with criminal gangs fitting fuel tanks into the backs of lorries to be able to get away with thousands of litres of diesel at a time. And there are reports that this activity has spread to construction plant too.

It certainly looks a lucrative business for them. If you take straight forward diesel prices and using London as an example, PetrolPrices.com reckons the average prices have risen from 97.1p a litre in July 2007 to 109.1p in January 2008 to 132.8p last month.

While analysts are debating whether we're going through an "oil bubble" of vastly inflated prices, it is up to the rest of us to suffer the consequences. When diesel becomes a lucrative target for the criminal fraternity, the message is to batten down the hatches and hang onto your caps until the worst is over.

One company that decided to cock a snook at the credit crunch was Terex-Demag. The company last week threw open the doors to its new Long Crendon crane centre in Buckinghamshire amid much pomp and ceremony.

Terex spent the Friday wining and dining its customers at the new centre with the entire staff of its local Indian restaurant on hand to treat them to a lunchtime banquet. The centrepiece of the day was a military brass band marching between the company's array of mobile cranes. Now there's one company that's out to prove that where there's truck there's brass!

1 August 2008

Will new training rules mark an end to red tape for operators waiting for their blue cards?

This Friday will mark the first day of new rules in the CPCS, which Construction Skills hopes will make the scheme run more smoothly and cut out the ridiculous waiting lists.

The new scheme will be geared to assessing the needs of the individual rather than putting all operators through the same form filling procedure time and again.

Someone with experience of a 360 excavator, for example, will be assessed on his basic skills and it will then be decided what extra training he needs. He can also pass a test to get his ticket for a 180. The scheme will feature core tests on health and safety and operators’ rights and responsibilities.

The current rules have bogged operators down with interminable form filling and have created a backlog of operators moving from red to blue cards.

Let’s hope it will also hail the dawn of a new and more sensible way of training operators. If it delivers qualified and competent workers without having to spend long periods away from work then it will get their managers’ votes.