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Binmen lift lid on training;The Knowledge

With ever more stringent safety rules, refuse collection today is a tricky business. Martin Whittaker reports on a pilot qualification to help collectors meet the standard.

BILL MILLER has been a binman in Salisbury for 26 years. Or at least he was when he started out. He's called a refuse collector now.

There have been other changes too. It's no longer waste disposal - it's waste management. And with the tightening of environmental protection laws, collectors are now expected to pick up much more than just the rubbish.

"Times have changed, especially environmental and safety wise," says Bill during his tea break. "When I started you could wear anything you wanted, but now we wear safety shoes and jackets. And there's quite a lot we're not allowed to dispose of. Like fluorescent tubes, batteries, oil, paint."

Bill Miller is one of the first four refuse collectors in the country to take a national vocational qualification in waste management, in a pilot scheme run by Salisbury College and Salisbury District Council in Wiltshire.

The collectors won't have to take an exam. Instead college staff go out on the rounds to assess them as they do their job. The NVQ has been designed for those with little previous education.

Tony Greaves, NVQ co-ordinator for technology and science at Salisbury College, has the unenviable task of on-the-job assessment. "As they're doing the round they will be asked questions on safety, why you're doing this, what you can and can't accept.

"It's observing that they're doing the job, but it's not checking up on them.

We're just providing the evidence to give them a qualification. It's not all rubbish - there's a lot goes on in this job."

You need nothing on paper to become a refuse collector, but you have to be fit.

"For the guys on the back there's a tremendous physical requirement," says Nick Darbyshire, operations manager of the council's contractors, Salisbury Commercial Services.

"At the same time they still need to have a great awareness about what they're doing. The safety side is of paramount importance. The way everybody dresses nowadays is part-and-parcel of the job."

During their induction the need for safety is drummed into new recruits, who are warned about potential hazards of working on the roadside, and about health and safety legislation.

They have to learn how to operate the "crusher" safely. And there's a spot check of the waste lorry to be done before they set off each morning.

The rest comes with experience. The rest? How much more is there to this job?

Mr Darbyshire says customer care plays an ever increasing part - especially since competitive tendering exposed the council to competition. There's their role in the community to think about.

"The knowledge these guys have about their routes and people on those routes is enormous. We have looked at community safety. An old lady who hasn't put the bin out -- they would spot that."

Salisbury College also hopes the new NVQ might nudge some collectors in the direction of education, perhaps helping them to brush up on basic skills and work towards their first qualification in maths and English.

Many of Salisbury's refuse collectors are old hands like Bill Miller. The scheme is entirely voluntary, but how have they taken to the suggestion that they might need a qualification in "garbage-ology"?

"I'm not going to say they've all embraced it with open arms," admits Nick Darbyshire. "Some of the older ones are saying what can you teach me about this job now? And to a large degree they're right. But it's to acknowledge that they have been doing this for 30 years.

"The Environmental Protection Act started looking at the concept of waste management for the first time.

"There's the realisation that refuse collectors are as critical as any other link in the chain.

"There are international recycling targets - the world has a waste problem. It won't be so long before they're going to insist on some level of awareness and training for all refuse collectors."

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