Coming Up to Speed on Mast Climbers
By Brett Martin
As mason contractors realize the benefits of using mast climbers, such as convenience and faster installation, mast climber use continues to soar across North America.
"The demand for this equipment is going to increase exponentially," said Dave Powell, director of labor relations for the Massachusetts chapter of the Association of General Contractors (AGC) in Wellesley, Mass. "What's going to drive this is the demand from the estimator. He's going to look at it and say, 'This piece of equipment can be set up and taken down quicker, and workers can use it with greater proficiency than they can standard tubular scaffolding.' If this can save time and money, you don't have to be a genius to know what they're going to want to use."
While mast climber demand has increased and the machines are being erected on more job sites around the country, education and training on these towering structures have lagged behind drastically. Manufacturers and industry organizations are now making a concerted effort to close that knowledge gap.
"People think mast climbers have simply replaced tubular scaffolding, but there's more to it than that. There are not the [same] inherent safety issues in the erection and dismantling of tubular scaffolding," Powell said. "This is a new machine. It's not necessarily new to the industry, but it's new to the safety people. We have to bring them up to speed on how to set up, operate and dismantle them."
O'Shea is now working with AWPT to create authorized training centers that will provide standardized mast climbing work platform (MCWP) training and issue powered access licensed registration cards (PALs) to those who complete the program.
"My job is to raise awareness about safety for mast climbers. Right now, MCWP use, and the legislation which governs it, is only in its infancy," O' Shea said. "Our goal is to raise safety and awareness to the highest levels by policing of unauthorized use, independent verification of skills and training, and tightening up legislation."
The training sessions are geared for small groups, and a written test is given at the completion of the session. "The idea behind the training is 'let's get it down and get it right now.' There's not a lot of expertise in this country regarding mast climbers, and those who have it are being swamped by requests for assistance," O'Shea explained. "We need to step up and try to raise awareness for training courses and skills verification."
O' Shea offers specialized training for four types of groups. The first is the "user's appointed/responsible person" who is charged with monitoring the mast climbers, O'Shea said. They don't set up or take down the equipment, but make sure it is safe for everyone using it.
"He or she is responsible for making sure there's no unauthorized use of the equipment and making sure the users ... have been given formal training by him or her," he said. The person completes a seven-point inspection checklist every day, and another seven-point inspection every week.
The second group is the "installers" who set up and take down the equipment. The third is "advanced installers" who erect and dismantle the scaffolding, and also assess any risks that may be involved in the set up and take down. "The advanced installer has the overview of the installation, making decisions on ground suitability, tie and anchor selection, method of erection and dismantle, and generally managing the on-site risk factors," O'Shea said.
The fourth group is the "advanced user" who is charged with the safe operation and transference of free-standing MCWPs.
"It's been amazing to see the difference that training has made. We need to have that training here. There's no legislation specifically governing the installation, maintenance, thorough examination and safe use of mast climbing work platforms in this country like there is in Europe," O'Shea said. "The training has created a much larger body of expertise. Mast climbers are now regarded as the safest system of powered access in Europe."
Just last year, 53,000 people received training and earned their PAL card in Europe, he said. Those companies expect the same level of training when working in North America.
"What we're finding is European-based companies are working in the United States using mast climbers, and they're demanding the same training verification process that they are comfortable with," O'Shea said. "We're seeing an increase in the use of mast climbers, and the United States has a huge growth potential. It's estimated that there are around 7,500 units here, about the same number of units as there are in Singapore. Singapore is about 60 times smaller than the United States. Similarly, in more mature MCWP markets, close to 25 percent of those countries' fixed scaffold is now taken up by MCWPs."
In the United States, general contractors often don't have their own scaffolding, so they rely on specialty contractors, AGC's Powell said.
"Part of the problem is the general contractor is not aware of the intricacies of the equipment coming onto the site. He's relying on the subs, who rely on the equipment manufacturer to train them," Powell said. "As a result, he [the general contractor] is getting the information second or third hand and is not as proficient as he should be."
While Powell advocates for education and training, he's not looking for contractors' safety managers to get involved in the set up and dismantling of the mast climbers. Instead, he wants them to understand how to use the equipment safely and be able to recognize potential problems.
"We're not trying to make the safety people the experts, but making them aware; when something doesn't look right, they'll have something from their training to back that up," he said.
Since mast climbers vary, Powell supports hands-on training by each manufacturer. "Our interest is to bring in training consultants from the manufacturers," he said. "There's nothing like having training on the equipment itself."
Not coincidentally, that's exactly what the manufacturers are doing.
Distributors are trained and certified, and then they provide training to their customers. Hydro Mobile also spent $100,000 making a training video for distributors and end users, Daigle said.
Similarly, St-Mathias-sur-Richelieu, Quebec-based Fraco Products Ltd. has a four-day training course that covers set up and dismantling of its machines, said Denis Bourgault, training manager for the company.
"After four days, a person can go on any job site. The goal of the training is to make sure people operate the machine correctly and in a safe manner. Some of it's basic, like making sure they don't run out of fuel at 200 feet," Bourgault said. "My goal is to make mast climbers safer, and safer because this is the future."
Fraco's hands-on training is geared toward four groups: users and operators; installers for freestanding equipment; installers who anchor the systems; and mechanical training.
America - AS Mast Climbers, a division of American Platform & Scaffolding in Baltimore, trains customers on using erected mast climbers and what to do in case of an emergency. "We hold their hand until they're ready to go," said Barney Hanna, the company's development manager. "The goal is for safe operation and safe building of the machines."
Hanna trains each skill trade that uses the mast climbers, including competent persons, masons and laborers, since they all take turns working on them once they're erected on the job site. He also provides users with written checklists for inspecting the equipment. "We've been doing this as long as I can remember, and it pays off," he said, noting that the benefit is eliminating accidents.
Most MCWP trainers prefer a more focused setting at their own facilities rather than on-the-job training. "The level of training on the job site is not as in-depth as it is at our factory," Hydro Mobile's Daigle said. "You can't do this on a job where you're wearing a pager, the boss is yelling, and the masons need more mud. It just doesn't work."
About the Author
Brett Martin is a freelance writer located in Shakopee, Minn. with several years of construction and writing experience.
Photos courtesy of Hydro Mobile.