Thanks to my mate Keith, I got my first job in the house building industry in the UK as a telescopic forklift driver on a site in a new housing area on the Gosport peninsula, across the busy navy dominated harbour from Portsmouth. This was where I first met a great bloke who became a good friend – Garry. Like me he had emigrated as a child with his parents; in his case to South Africa. Times were tough and he had returned to the UK to find work, bringing his family with him. Garry was my first true boss on the sites in the UK and we got on like a house on fire from day one. We may have been born here in England, but because of our upbringing in the southern hemisphere, neither of us thought or acted the way the English do. We used to laugh about it a lot. At that time he was the site agent in charge of the expensive houses and flats being constructed for wealthy punters, who desired weekend retreats close to the harbour and away from London. I was to spend a quite a while on Garry’s site until Keith’s one up the road was ready to begin.
Garry’s own forklift driver was a slightly built, accident prone Scotsman. To save him any embarrassment let’s call him Ted. Like most site forklift drivers he thought he ran the place. Sometimes he would come in during the weekends, usually worse for wear after a Friday night session with his mates. We arrived one Monday morning at around seven am to find a pile of smashed flooring lying on the muddy ground beside the back wall of a block of flats. Ted had tried to bump out some packets of flooring, still suffering from the night before, and in the process he lost the lot and managed to damage the rear wall of the block of flats into the bargain.
Ted was always having problems, generally of his own making, which normally meant he didn’t have his mind on the job. Garry and I were sitting in his office having a cup of coffee during the morning break one day, when Ted appeared covered in blood from a wound to his head. Building sites by their very nature are extremely dangerous places. Providing you broadly follow the common sense safety rules, you will go home at the end of the day relatively unharmed. But that didn’t seem to apply to Ted. On this particular occasion he was emptying some of the blue mini bins that were placed around the site for the sub-contractors to throw their rubbish into.
A four wheel drive telescopic forklift is a wonderful tool, no matter how large or small, providing it’s used correctly. Part of our job as site forklift (or telehandler) drivers is to empty the small bins into the big roll-away skips for collection and disposal by an outside contractor. When you’re driving a telescopic forklift, wearing your safety helmet inside the protected cab is not necessary. But when you leave it, you should have it on, plus you should also be wearing your steel toecap boots and your high-viz vest so that you can be seen by everyone else on site.
It was warm, and as usual Ted was stripped to the waist, minus hat and vest. You pick up the mini bins on your forks to carry them around the site. When you want to empty them, they have a manually operated release bar at their rear held by a spring catch which must be released before you climb back inside your cab to raise the full bin before tipping it forward to allow the contents of the bin to empty into the skips. Because of the rough treatment they get, sometimes the bins don’t always lock back into place when you tip the forks back. So you have to put them down on the ground and manually lock them. In his infinite stupidity, Ted dived out of his cab without his gear on and attacked the problem of the uncooperative bin. Instead of pushing it down against the spring and shifting the lock with his boot, he slammed the bin down hard, only for it to bounce back up, striking him on his forehead. According to Ted it was all the bin’s fault, not his! Needless to say Garry fired him and sent him on his way.
After Ted’s departure I took over as the site’s only driver, and apart from the inevitable mishaps caused by the design of the vehicle, things ran pretty smoothly from then on.
Most telescopic forklifts have their cabs on the left-hand side. Depending on the manufacture of the vehicle, your view along the right-hand side can be, and usually is, blocked by the massive telescopic boom, which under the right circumstances guarantees to cause problems. They are capable of two or four wheel steering as well; I experienced the problem of the large protruding tyres first hand when I was delivering a water barrel for one of the sub-contractors one day. As I crept slowly round the back of his parked vehicle, my right front tyre which was hidden from view, demolished the back of his van.
Often there is nowhere on site for the sub-contractors to park their vehicles, so they have to be parked on the road. The site opposite us had a particular problem with one young sub-contractor who always parked in the road directly below the loading bays, which were situated high up on the scaffolding. Garry and I watched as their ‘forky’ finally lost his patience with the offending vehicle and removed it using his telescopic, before neatly dropping it into the giant high sided thirty-five cubic yard skip opposite the site office after repeatedly asking the bloke not to park there! When he went to leave the site later that day, the young bloke spent hours searching for his vehicle in vain. No one can say that life on a building site is dull, hard dangerous work yes, but never dull.