Simon Midgley meets the man who, worried by the hole in construction training courses in north-east England, set up his own company.
John Robertson sees quite a few dangerous scaffolding structures as he drives through the streets of South Shields. Safety handrails removed, toe boards missing, absent nuts - examples of bad scaffolding practice that can lead to death and serious injury.
Such frequent infringements of the 1966 Construction (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations suggest either that scaffolds are being erected insecurely or that they are not being inspected regularly enough.
Conscious that more training was needed, Mr Robertson, 31, resolved to do something about it. "There was a desperate local requirement for training, " he said. "There were no facilities for it." He estimates that up to 50 per cent of scaffolders in the region have not taken the basic industry-approved training course.
The nearest such centres are in Glasgow, Nottingham and Bircham Newton in Norfolk and many scaffolders cannot afford the travel and accommodation costs involved in spending two weeks away from home.
Last October Mr Robertson, who has been a scaffolder since he left school 15 years ago, set up his own scaffold training centre at Hebburn on the banks of the Tyne. His company, Advanced Scaffold Training and Inspections Ltd, is attempting to fill a regional gap in training between Glasgow and Middlesbrough.
Mr Robertson holds an advanced scaffolder card and a City of Guilds qualification in assessment skills for NVQs and teaching techniques. His organisation, based in the heart of the Tyne shipyards, aspires to supply an independent training service to the area's rejuvenated shipping, chemical and construction industries. "The Tyne is booming again," Mr Robertson said. "It needs someone local who can offer advice as well as training."
His centre is now one of 12 in the country approved for scaffolder training by the Construction Industry Training Board. It is housed in a former Swan Hunter warehouse rented from the Tyne Tees Dockyard Authority. It is so large that it allows Mr Robertson sufficient headroom to erect a mock-up of a two-storey house on which scaffolders can train. It is, he claims, the largest training centre north of the Wash.
Safety continues to be a concern in the scaffolding industry. Falls from a height cause more than half the fatalities on construction sites, according to the Health and Safety Executive. Last year there were 77 reports of dangerous incidents associated with scaffold collapses.
Mr Robertson's centre offers a range of courses for up to nine people at a time. At present he offers training to attain the Basic Scaffolder's card, which requires a combination of on-the-job experience and practical assessment over a period of 18 months. He has trained 27 scaffolders to date and 15 of his trainees have walked straight into jobs. The card scheme has been in use since 1979 under the auspices of the National Association of Scaffolding Contractors and the Building and Civil Engineering Joint Board.
The scaffolding industry is now following other construction sectors by moving towards aligning the card scheme with NVQ certification. Levels one and two are needed to attain the basic card and level three for the advanced card. Mr Robertson hopes to receive approval for offering training towards NVQ and the advanced card shortly.
Scaffolders are now having to come to terms with returning to the classroom, whatever their age and skills level. "As soon as the scaffolders find out they have to take an NVQ, they say 'woah I can do me job, but the pen...'," Mr Robertson said. "But as long as a man displays confidence then the NVQ is not a problem. They get an initial shock that's all."
Another aspect of the company's work involves offering an independent scaffold inspection service. The 1996 Construction (Health, Safety, and Welfare) Regulations laid down the requirement for a regular inspection process. Inspections are required at the start of scaffold erection, after any alteration or accident, and every week after that. The inspectors must prepare written regular reports at each stage.
The person responsible for inspection tends to be the 'tagman' or site foreman. The regulations require the inspector to be a "competent" person, however Mr Robertson believes that there is a need for independent inspections by those with in-depth expertise.
"There is nothing to say what is meant by 'competent'," Mr Robertson said. "And the 1996 regs require a high workload from a tagman if he is to cover all the aspects. I have seen the need for an independent, unbiased inspection service, rather than the companies inspecting their own scaffolds and being subject to commercial pressures and loyalties.
"What contractors need is dedicated inspectors, based on site, offering unbiased opinions."
Mr Robertson, who already offers a two-day scaffold inspection course to local firms, is hoping to build up a team of independent inspectors to provide such a service in future.