What goes up, must come down
Don't like heights? Well that needn't stop you getting a PAL Card to advance your career as Colin Sowman discovered.
'How did it come to this?' I thought as I arrived at Facelift's training centre to take a PAL Card course for operating a MEWP. The idea of ascending to great heights on an access platform filled me with apprehension (if not dread). As an engineer I was well aware of what can cause an access platform to topple over and as a journalist I knew that this occasionally happens. And while such accidents are very rare, I am not a betting man, so anything below 100% certainty is risky in my books. On the other hand, that knowledge (combined with mistrust of height) would ensure I was an attentive trainee.
My trainer for the day was senior instructor Eddie Reast who has survived 14 years in the industry and operates machines on a regular basis - a very good omen. He was assisted by another instructor. One of my fellow trainees was renewing his PAL Card while the other four were, like me, seeking to get their initial licence. PAL Cards (Powered Access Licences) are valid for five years.
In theory The theory session started with a look at the post 2008 categories on the PAL Card where an 'a' suffix refers to MEWPs where the vertical projection of the centre of area
of the platform at the maximum chassis inclination specified by the manufacturer is always inside the tipping lines whereas the 'b' suffix refers to MEWPs where the vertical projection of the centre of area of the platform at the maximum chassis inclination specified by the manufacturer may be outside the tipping lines. In general terms the 'a' indicates the operator remains within the machine's footprint (such as a scissor lift) whereas the 'b' suffix shows that the basket can be extended into 'the tipping zone' as with a boom lift.
Such broad categorisation means that anyone holding a 3b ticket has been trained to operate a mobile boom lift - be that 10m maximum working height or 50m. Here Reast highlighted the importance of the log book which will show employers and site managers that you have the experience and regular practice needed to operate the bigger booms, he told the group.
The engineer in me appreciated the examination of the various parts of an access platform, the discussion on what would happen if a hydraulic pipe burst and a brief outline of relevant legislation (WAH, PUWER and LOLER). "The first thing you look for when you see the machine is to check when it was last inspected," said Reast after explaining employers' responsibilities and testing requirements. My distinct uneasiness was temporarily assuaged as we moved onto the less clear cut parts of the equation - ground conditions and wind speeds. Reast had a clear message: "Facelift always supplies spreader pads when a machine has outriggers and we expect them to be used - regardless of the ground conditions."
Throughout the day Reast emphasized that responsibility for a person's safety remains with the individual - none more so than with wind speed - which is always left to the operator. While it may be easy to find the maximum allowable wind speed on the plate, assessing the prevailing conditions is trickier and he advises all MEWP operators to invest in an anemometer. While pulling on my full body harness Reast advocated using a short fall-restraint lanyard as many connection points are not designed to take the additional strain imposed by stopping a falling person. Checklists I was then ushered towards a Compact 10N scissor lift to put into practice the pre-use checks we had learned: inspection date - check, tilt alarm - check, wheels/tyres condition - check, emergency descent system - check …
Everything checked out and the instructor (or other course members) could perform an emergency lowering if necessary. The hard standing we were using provided perfect ground conditions and, look as hard as I might, I could see no uncompacted soil, pot holes, hidden drains, slopes or pavements to fall off - in short I had no excuses left so I climbed aboard.
The checks left me reasonably confident the machine would behave as intended and I had no problem using it to check the already very clean gutters around the training centre. U-turns in tight spaces were easily performed, although negotiating a left, right manoeuvre to get through a narrow gap between two other machines while in 'reverse' was more testing. "Hit anything and it's an instant fail," Reast said reassuringly. A diesel-powered Skyjack 9250 scissor was to prove more of a challenge for my stomach as I was invited to test out the extension on which I was standing! There was 15m of nothing between me and the ground which I knew to be very hard and compacted. By the time I could return to the relative safety of the main platform my lunch was considering putting in a reappearance.
Unfortunately the old 'don't look down' advice doesn't really work as MEWP operators have to look down before moving and descending. We then moved on to a boom lift (a 16m working height HA16SPX) a 'b' category machine where the platform 'goes outside the tipping zone'. Experience told me boom lifts are jerky and any wind causes them to wallow sickeningly. Somewhat perturbed I undertook meticulous pre-use checks, climbed into the basket and connected my short lanyard to the anchor point. Reast took me through the familiarization and asked that I check on the travel speed restriction system which should kick in once the basket is raised - it was working well. Having driven around for a few minutes there was no option but to start going up. Now what was the sequence acronym, oh yes, LUST: lower boom, upper boom, slew, telescope. And remember to reverse the sequence when descending. I started to elevate the basket and to my pleasant surprise my lunch wasn't back on the menu.
The machine felt stable and gentle (some would say timid) stick movements minimized boom flexing. Furthermore, I was in control and anticipated the movements so they were not in the least unnerving. Back in the classroom we found we had all passed both the theory and practical tests - but the news came with a warning: "Today doesn't make you an operator - you weren't born into your trade," Reast said. Mindful of the fact that many MEWP operators use the machines intermittently, we were each given a useful IPAF key ring which contains checklists of the pre-start and work site inspections, an Operators' Safety Guide and, of course, a log book.
Having overcome my apprehension I was pleased with my day and I am now the proud holder of a PAL Card. But I think I'll stick to my word processor and let the professionals do the work at height jobs.