WITH only 20 members, the Federation of Piling Specialists is not the largest of organisations but it has not let size hold it back.
'The thing about the FPS is that it has a relatively big influence for a small association, ' says chairman Ken Cromwell.
'We're a very active group. We do a lot, both on our own and in partnership with other organisations. We've got great relationships with the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Building Research Establishment. We've recently joined Confederation of Associations of Specialist Engineering Contractors, the umbrella body for specialist construction companies in Northern Ireland.' As well as strengthening ties with other organisations the plan is to increase membership.
'I want to get a greater rapport with the Major Contractors Group and the Civil Engineering Contractors Association, ' Mr Cromwell says.
He hopes to recruit another handful of the 30 or so piling companies, most of them small, who are not currently federation members. As well as highlighting the association's good work, he plans to use the personal touch.
'I'll talk to managing directors. Most of them come from companies who have been FPS members, so someone will know them. In this industry personal relat ionsh ips go a long way.' The federation is also looking at the possibility of making associate membership available, but only to those closely linked to the sector. 'We thought firms' testing houses might be interested , ' Mr Cromwell says.
But why have companies been slow to sign up?
'We have made it quite hard to join, ' he admits. Each company must undergo a three-year audit by an external body, which costs around £1,500. But Mr Cromwell says this process maintains standards. On top of this, each company pays a membership fee calculated in relation to its turnover.
'It's a relatively big burden for smaller companies to shoulder, ' he says. 'But it is worth it. My plan is to make both members and non-members more aware of what the FPS does and how we can help them.' In fact, Mr Cromwell claims the stringency of the audit process is a real benefit. He says that FPS membership should be seen as a badge of quality and aims to ensure this by publicising more highly that when a client engages an FPS member it is tak ing on a firm that can be t rusted. Checks will have been made on product quality, technical background , plant maintenance, environmental certification, training, competence and health and safety.
'Contractors are aware of us, though how much they value an FPS membership varies. We want to emphasise the benefits to ultimate clients too. Piling is one of the first jobs on site and if it goes wrong costs are enormous, both in time and money.' Mr Cromwell also wants to make the industry more aware of the tasks the federation shoulders. He uses the association's working platform design method as an example.
'You only have to see a rig go over once to know it's not something you ever want to see again. It does an enormous amount of damage. Our members put their hands in their pockets to pay for the BRE to put together a simple design method that enables people without the expertise of a geotechnical engineer to design a work ing platform safely. We did it because it needed to be done.' So confident is the FPS that the method works that it is downloadable for free to members and non-members from the association's website, despite the liability issues it could bring.
A recent seminar was organised to encourage consultants and piling companies with no affiliation to the FPS to see how it works.
Mr Cromwell points to this type of activity as another reason to join the FPS.
'Our technical committee meets four times a year to focus on particular problems. At the moment we're working with the ICE to update its specification for piling and embedded retaining walls.' It is also in discussion with Network Rail to decide a general agreement on how rigs work next to railways.
'We hope to have standard documents that can be used anywhere in the UK by the end of the year, ' Mr Cromwell says.
A commercial committee also convenes to deal with members' legal and contractual problems, and the federation provides a regularly renewed library of toolbox talks free to members.
Training has a good take up in the piling industry, according to Mr Cromwell, but he believes that organising it is needlessly complex.
'The European passport system is much simpler, but it's too late to change to that now. The card system made everyone think about training, but it's discordant and complicated, as well as expensive for small companies. The FPS can help advise who should have which qualifications.' Safety has always been an issue close to Mr Cromwell's heart ? his previous role was as chair of the federation's safety and training committee.
'We've dealt with auger cleaners and working platforms, ' he says proudly. 'Things have improved so much. Unlike main contractors we have very few people sitting in the office with paperwork. The vast majority are on site, doing. That makes our statistics look higher than they are. So much work has gone into driving out unsafe practices. Now when an accident happens, it is a genuine accident.' The FPS is trying not only to fight its own safety battles but also to aid the rest of the const ruct ion industry.
'Hand-arm vibration doesn't affect us directly but it does affect principal contractors who cut our piles down later, ' he says. 'Now we put debonding on the top part of the reinforcement so pile breakers can be used on the concrete without crunching the top off the steel, too.' The only issue Mr Cromwell feels that the FPS cannot tackle is retentions. 'We had it sorted. Members had agreed not to use retentions. But then the Office of Fair Trading deemed that illegal, and said decisions must be made on a company by company basis. Now it is up to the Government to do away with them completely, ' he says.