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The vocal man in charge of a qu uiet revolution

PLANT HIRE - Colin Wood has used his down-to-earth style to change the culture at the Construction Plant-hire Association and to achieve some significant victories for hirers too.Andrew Gaved reports

WHEN the Construction Plant-hire Association appointed Colin Wood as its chief executive in 2001, there was clearly a mood for change. For a start, his predecessor had been sacked after just three months in the job, but Mr Wood was also the first to take the hot seat without a legal background.

Instead he was steeped in the plant industry, with long experience of operations management at arguably the sharpest end - crane hire.

He brought with him a formidable reputation for negotiating, having been responsible at crane companies GWS and then Baldwins for a fair proportion of the hiring and firing. Indeed, it is rumoured that he still holds the record for the most plant men laid off in a single day - not necessarily something you would put on your CV in these times, but at the school of hard knocks he clearly graduated with honours.

He revels in his reputation for speaking as he finds, and his straighttalking seems to have had an unprecedented degree of success in cutting through the bureaucracy and legislative flim-flam that have plagued the plant industry. Particularly satisfying was getting the Inland Revenue to allow the hire industry to claim first-year Capital Allowance - a fight that a stream of his predecessors had tried and failed to win.

In the three years he has been there, Mr Wood has wrought significant changes at the CPA. It could be said to be a quiet revolution, except he is not exactly quiet.

Since his appointment, the membership of the association has leaped by 25 per cent to 1,300 firms.

Mr Wood can point to impressive victories against the powers of officialdom. By responding to the likes of the Department of Trade and Industry and HM Customs as quickly as possible, at as senior a level and with as much publicity as possible, he has won concessions on issues as varied as the use of diesel bowsers and the importation of muddy machines.

There have also been lower-profile improvements on the members' behalf. For instance, the association now emails all information to 900 of its members.Mr Wood reckons the CPA saves £400 to £500 every time a best practice guide is emailed rather than posted.

'It is fair to say we are bucking the trend, when other trade associations are losing members, 'he says.

'I think it has helped that we have got a higher profile, so everybody knows what we are doing. In the past, some people have been shy of the press, but I can't think of any better forum for addressing issues than the trade press.'

But the single biggest area the CPA has had to get to grips with is, unsurprisingly, health and safety.'It is becoming more and more of an issue.The CPA is very strong on protocols, from helping draft new standards to producing best practice guides, ' says Mr Wood.

CPA groups are currently working on draft British standards for construction hoists and the safe use of powered access and are negotiating to write a standard on the use of concrete pumps.This work comes alongside best practice guides in a number of areas, most notably in contract lifting for crane hirers.

The drafting groups all work quite closely with the Health and Safety Executive, which provides specialists to advise the meetings. It is no surprise that Mr Wood has strong views on the educational role of the HSE.

'Some say the HSE should do more enforcement and less education, but I hold the totally opposite view, ' he explains.'It does a very good job, although it needs at least twice as many inspectors in the field. But I believe education is important. Some people are prosecuted and have no idea what they have done wrong.'

Mr Wood becomes quite impassioned on the subject of responsibility.'If it is proven that an operator is aware of the responsibilities and is in breach of them, then he should be dealt with. For instance, if a crane driver switches off the safe-load indicator and there is an accident, then he should take a share of the pain.At the moment, it is only the company that gets penalised.

'If an operator got a serious fine, the message would soon get back to the mess room that you can't get away with it. I don't know of any driver who has even been given a warning letter by the HSE.

'A copper doesn't stop you for driving dangerously, then ask you who you work for so he can send them a fine, does he? But as soon as you operate something on site, you can do what you like and it's the company that gets done. Something's not right. But you never hear the unions advocating making the driver accountable.'

What should happen, Mr Wood contends, is that the HSE inspector should have the power to take away the operator's skills card, like a driving disqualification.

That would, of course, require skills cards to be made compulsory under law.

'It will take time to get our heads round it, but something needs to be done, 'he concludes.

But locking horns with the HSE is a walk in the park compared with dealing with the machinations of the European legislative process.The red tape emanating from Brussels is something that exercises Mr Wood as much as safety inequalities.

'We are getting fed up with spurious legislation coming out of Europe. In Britain we seem to be picking up legislation only when it's got to the MEPs, and we end up working with a watered-down version of legislation that should never have been there in the first place.'

Unfortunately the solution, to nip such legislation in the bud as early as possible, depends on the Government. But Mr Wood and the other main plant associations are fighting a rearguard action by joining forces on issues of mutual concern.

The CPA and tool hire body Hire Association Europe, together with the International Powered Access Federation and manufacturers' group the Construction Equipment Association, plan to meet twice a year at a senior level.Where there is the potential to make an intervention, Mr Wood says the bodies will put together a joint working group.

'We are going to discuss how we can reduce the cost and resources on issues such as whole-body vibration.The Government has said it is fed up with hearing fragmented views from industry and having to address five different views of the same legislation. If it hears only one view from the plant sector, it is a lot easier, and that has to be worth something.'

This concept of a 'plant confederation' is something Mr Wood is keen on, although he stops short of wanting to form new umbrella groups.'We are not going to be like the Construction Confederation, with a whole second level of hierarchy, as that is too costly, ' he says.

But such collaborations seem to be a practical step for the sector, given that the legislators show no signs of slowing down; and the plans certainly seem more workable than previous messy attempts at mergers and takeover between the various bodies.

'We have just spent a disproportionate amount of money on sorting out the FSMA insurance regulations for our members, where other associations may well have been affected. If we had all worked together it may have benefited everyone, ' he adds.

Mr Wood is currently fighting on behalf of members over the Working Time Directive and the restriction it puts on the hours worked.He has the unenviable task of arguing for the right of his crane operators to work an energy-sapping 84-hour week at peak times, such as industrial shutdowns.

It will bring him face to face not only with the usual Government agencies, but also with the unions, who know him of old. It could be the toughest test yet of the Wood negotiating technique.