Every day building site problems


Because of the cool temperate climate the UK is subjected to, most building sites are bitterly cold quagmires of mud, ice, and snow during winter, and a suffocatingly hot dust bowl in summer. With all the heavy vehicles delivering tonnes of bricks, concrete blocks, cement, scaffolding on a daily basis, and the many other items needed in the construction of the average British brick dwelling, the ground soon becomes impassable.

To add to all of that, the typical site is constantly being dug up by JCB’s to lay services, while 360’s fill large trucks to reduce the amount of the spoil by groundworkers. And, telescopic forklifts continually bump out heavy packets of bricks, blocks and the like to the various teams of sub-contractors across the site each and every day.


 When Keith’s site just up the road from Garry’s was ready, I was transferred there to drive the telescopic. The ground workers under their foreman Nigel had spent weeks transforming an old armed forces sports field into an area fit for about forty detached and semidetached houses to be constructed. Nigel and his crew laid out the ‘oversites’ in preparation for the brickies to begin their work. They poured the footings for the houses and laid down the drainage and a base for a system of roads around the new estate; and for a while the roads held up. But inevitably they became muddy tracks.

As each group of houses is finished and the punters move in to their new homes, the site gradually shrinks in size. The vast dumps of bricks and blocks etc are constantly being moved as a result. Over the short period of summer that year my large four wheel drive JCB telescopic did little damage to the dusty ground. Winter was a different story entirely.

My ‘Jake’ had a hydraulic boom that stretched seventeen metres, and she was powered by a 550 horsepower turbo diesel; she weighing in at over twelve tonnes. She could dead-lift four tonnes with her boom fully retracted, but at full extension above a working angle of 30°, the load on the forks was limited to a mere 250 kilograms. The average packet of bricks weighs in around a tonne, depending on what type of brick it is. If the brickies were working on the top lift, equal to the second or third story of the house or block of flats, despite its size, the ‘Jake’ was usually always working well beyond its design capabilities.

Bumping out a pack of bricks held together with thin plastic or steel bands inside a shrink-wrapped thin outer covering is usually no problem, providing the packs haven’t been moved too often. All packs are delivered by truck and usually unloaded by the truck’s Hiab. Most truck drivers are expert at handling the fragile packs when they are stacking them for the ‘forky’. Each packet has two holes running through it enabling you to insert your forks to pick them up. But when the packs have been constantly moved around the site, after a while they tend to fall apart. So you either have to restack them on pallets, or use a block grab. The block grab I used weighed 200 kilograms, which meant that in theory I could only lift a payload of 50 kilograms at the full seventeen metre reach of my ‘Jake’.

Time is money on a building site. The brickies labourer is responsible for mixing his gang’s pug, or mortar, and ensuring their continual supply of bricks. He needs those bricks or blocks, and his pug bin, where he can get at them without delay. Often they would leave out a window lintel and the bricks above it on the lift, and I would carefully position the ‘Jake’ in line with the opening. She had two large legs at the front with wide plates, or feet, to support the vehicle when they were hydraulically lowered to the ground, holding her firmly in place for the lift.

With the brickies labourer guiding me from above, the whole operation became a slow controlled crash landing, timed neatly to safely place the blocks or bricks held by the block grab, or the pug bin on the forks, close to the centre of the working platform, out of my sight. Often you would be performing the tricky operation blinded by the sun through the protected, usually pug – encrusted dirty, safety glass roof of the cab.

As the boom extended, the effect of the heavy counterbalance weight on the back of the ‘Jake’ was neutralised by the fully extended much heavier boom and its load. As the ‘Jake’s’ rear wheels came off the ground, the whole load descended slowly through the gap in the wall where the window opening was, until the labourer signalled to me that it was touching the deck. Then I lowered the boom slightly to release the block grab’s grip, and to take away the terrific strain on the boom. This enabled the rear wheels of the ‘Jake’ to return to the ground once more, making the vehicle safe, before finally retracting the whole cumbersome affair back to its resting position beside the cab and raising the feet.

Like most vehicles on a building site you quickly got to know what you could get away with in relative safety, and as I said earlier, consequently you worked the vehicle well beyond its design working limits.

Most reputable house building firms try to work within the rules laid down for safety on site. In reality often that just does not work. Accidents happen all the time, usually close to the building under construction caused by falling bricks or scaffold pipes sticking out at eye level, gear left lying around for someone to trip over, or from items kicked over the side of the scaffold walkways by the people working there. All you can do in the end to get the job done on time is to take calculated risks. This is simply because of the constant need by the firm to put the punters into their homes as quickly as possible to turn a profit.

If you are an absolute stickler for the strict rules regarding safe use of a forklift, then the building site is definitely not for the place for you, you wouldn’t last five minutes! But if you apply a modicum of common sense, you can work safely within the dangerous environment I have just related to you.

Maybe one day soon, I sincerely hope and pray that the designers and manufacturers of telescopic forklifts will take them a step further by taking into account the ideas and working knowledge of the site ‘forky’ on those dangerous sites, to build a vehicle capable of doing the job properly, and above all safely.

While they are extremely manoeuvrable and versatile tools, they do have severe limitations. Until someone comes up with a telescopic that combines the functions of both forklift and 360 degree crane, all rolled into one, ‘forkys’ will continue to bump out using the controlled crash method for a good many years to come. Why not have a crane on site for the duration of the job I hear you cry? Simply because the cost of hiring them is astronomical. Not to mention the fact that mobile cranes are huge vehicles that can’t always be manouvered within the narrow confines of any given building site. Whereas a ‘Jake’ can. My big girl certainly could…


Building Site Blues


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.