UK tunnel safety and training schemes in focus Aug 2011
As the UK embarks on a set of high-profile tunnelling projects, the industry asks itself where exactly are all the skilled tunnel construction operatives going to come from? TunnelTalk reporter Peter Kenyon explores the different schemes established to train workers needed to work in what is not only a highly specialised underground environment, but one that has stringent safety considerations.
The UK training academy will include a simulated underground environment
- It is now only a matter of months before work starts on the central underground element of the ambitious 120km east-west Crossrail link across London. As this progresses other significant tunnelling contracts will advance through the planning stages, including the Thames Tideway, High-Speed Rail 2 and possibly Crossrail 2.
- Crossrail, the Client organisation, is confident the workers it needs to complete the underground construction will be readily available. In September it will open the purpose-built, project-inspired, Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (TUCA) as part of a bid to ensure a qualified tunnel services workforce.
- Crossrail sppokesman Peter MacLennan told TunnelTalk: "There will be a potential need for tunnelling contractors to bring in limited high-level tunnelling expertise from Europe and elsewhere to oversee the operation of the TBMs due to the specialist nature of this skill, but labour for station and tunnel construction is readily available in the UK."
Other industry observers, however, are not so sure. Many believe it will be a real challenge to train workers in time for the start of construction in Spring 2012.
- It was Crossrail's recognition that too few UK operatives were available to work on the growing number of tunnelling projects that inspired the setting up of the training academy. Estimates at the time put the number of available, experienced, workers in the UK at just 500 when seven times that number would be needed to service Crossrail alone.
- The UK tunnelling industry has recognised a need for formal safety and professional training of its workers for a number of years. In 2007 the construction industry's training agency ConstructionSkills, the British Tunnelling Society, and the tunnelling companies themselves came together to form a tunnel-specific training organisation called TunnelSkills. This body explored the options available and began a process of devising a series of tunnelling National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs). These were, and continue to be, employment-based courses with candidates' performance regularly assessed by a certificating authority. The range and scope of these courses have been expanding ever since.
- Brian Earnshaw, a mining and tunnelling engineer all his working life, is involved in devising and helping deliver NVQ training courses via TunnelSkills. He explained that back in the 1990s the UK was on the verge of a tunnelling boom, just as it is now. Many of those projects are only just coming to fruition, he said.
- "We are now on the cusp," said Earnshaw. "There are a number of projects under way in the UK which demand a significant number of people, but at the same time there is a small pool of experienced workers. The industry is going to need a lot more."
Academy of Tunnelling and Underground Construction Training
The Crossrail-inspired Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (TUCA) is due to open next month (September 2012). The facility aims to "support the UK economy by equipping workers with the specialist skills they need to meet the demand for labour in the area of underground construction." Training will be "driven by the demand of employers" and will include:
• Apprenticeships tailored to the underground working environment and technical skills required by employers
• Bespoke training courses to meet the needs of employers who require specific training to upskill their tunnel workers
• Nationally-accredited safety training in the form of the Tunnel Safety Card
Based in Ilford, East London, and set over two floors, the TUCA will include a simulated TBM environment, simulated TBM back-up area, sprayed concrete lining facilities, workshop space, and four classrooms. Training will cover various underground construction roles including:
• TBM electrician and fitters
• Ring builders
• Loco and excavator drivers
• Pit bottom operatives
• Tele-handlers and fork-life operators
• Tunnel support installers
• Nozzle operatives
• Concrete pump operators
• Caulkers and finishers
• Steel erectors and joiners
- The facility is being funded by Crossrail (£7.5 million) and the Government (£5 million). Hosted initially by Crossrail, the facility will eventually become independent and run by an external training provider.
- But according to Earnshaw the problem with the NVQ is that they are aimed at people who already have some job experience.
- He also points out that the end of the UK's coal mining industry has resulted in a serious shortage of the sort of underground workers who might otherwise have now been available to retrain.
- He said: "The old system of recruitment is not the way of the world for today's major projects. There are criteria written into contracts now. Notably for Crossrail there is a directive to recruit local labour. As a result there is going to have to be a big push to recruit people with no training at all, and that will mean provision for some intensive training, predominantly in health and safety."
- The Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (TUCA) is Crossrail's attempt to address both the skills and safety awareness gap. At a cost of £12.5 million, and funded in part by the UK Government, this facility will provide the country's first industry-specific, purpose-built, off-site, training facility. Eventually it will offer in-situ specialist tunnelling operative training and NVQ courses in line with industry needs.
Delivering 400 apprentices
Crossrail anticipated that this sort of training was needed, not least because it requires its contractors to offer one apprenticeship for every £3 million of contract value on the project. According to Crossrail this represents an estimated total of about 400 apprenticeships over the duration of the underground construction contracts.
- There is, however, no direction as to whether these apprenticeships need to be delivered in trades above or below ground. The majority of the 14,000 jobs created by Crossrail will be for above-ground operatives.
- Crossrail stipulates in its contracts that only those aged 18 or over can work underground, and admits therefore that most apprenticeships are likely to be awarded to 16 and 17-year-olds in above-ground trades. But Earnshaw is hopeful that contractors and the new national training academy, TUCA, will be far-sighted enough to get around this age-18 limitation by taking on younger apprentices who will be able to study excavation-specific crafts in the classroom even though they will not be able to put their learning into practice underground until they reach 18.
- "There is no reason why under 18s can't go through the tunnelling training programmes. It is for training institutions like TUCA to help their trainees into the workplace perhaps by keeping them working in overground roles to start with." This will require contractors in the short-term to find above-ground work for underaged apprentices who will eventually move underground once they are 18.
- On the matter of the need for professional training, TunnelSkills and Crossrail are broadly in agreement. But on the matter of safety training a scenario has developed in which there are now two safety training standards.
Safety scheme split
In December 2009 the TunnelSkills Underground Safety Passport (USP) was established. It represented for the first time an industry-standard UK underground safety qualification. Twenty-four of the UK's largest construction and tunnelling contractors are signed up to TunnelSkills and its Safety Passport scheme. BTS Chairman Bob Ibell said: "TunnelSkills was formed to meet the challenges of planning for major tunnelling projects such as Crossrail and the Thames Tideway scheme."
Layout of the TUCA and its areas of specific study
- At an awards ceremony earlier this year (2011) Mike Feneley of Construction Skills, which worked with the industry to establish Tunnelskills, said: "This is a truly historic event for the tunnelling industry having such a scheme launched into being by the contractors themselves via TunnelSkills, supported by the Health and Safety Executive, and showing the commitment and determination of the sector in driving safety standards to a new level. Coupled with a desire to qualify the workforce this will have a major impact on safety within the tunnel environment."
- The key here, according to Earnshaw, who is also the training officer of TunnelSkills, is the commitment to safety and training together. Since the launch more than 400 individuals have gained the Passport. A pre-requisite for acquiring a Passport is either to have gained an NVQ qualification or at least be studying towards one. Passports must be renewed every two years to ensure up-to-date knowledge.
- But even though the Passport was created with Crossrail specifically in mind, Crossrail decided not to buy into the existing industry-supported USP. Instead, and despite extensive discussions with TunnelSkills, it chose to devise its own Tunnel Safety Card (TSC). Everyone wanting to work on Crossrail must have one regardless of whether they already hold the alternative Tunnelskills USP.
- Crossrail spokesman McLennan explained: "Crossrail wanted to develop a nationally recognised scheme that may be linked to the NVQ pathway but would be accessible to new entrants to the industry. Other schemes did not meet that specific need of the Crossrail project."
- This means, in effect, that Crossrail needs its safety training element to be accessible quickly, and be a standalone product. In four months 250 workers, mostly already experienced tunnellers on day-long safety refresher courses from their construction company employers, have gained their TSC. According to a Crossrail spokesman, new cards are currently being awarded at the rate of 40 each week. There is no stipulation that card-holders be studying for a tunnel-specific NVQ, unlike the TunnelSkills USP. This is perhaps a reflection of the fact that a large number of those working in the tunnels will be working in predominantly above-ground trades and will require only general tunnel safety training.
Unifying the safety schemes
It is hoped that a unified safety scheme can eventually be adopted. Tunnelskills' Brian Earnshaw said: “We broke new ground with the Underground Safety Passport and we are now in a period of review. Part of that process is to look at everything in a wider context and see if we can align the two schemes more closely."
- "For the moment Crossrail's Tunnel Safety Card is the key to their gate and contractors will have to respect that requirement if they want to work on that project. Employers are keen on our Underground Safety Passport but what has gone against it is that new entrants to the industry are not pre-qualified to take the Passport. At the end of the day, however, we all want to demonstrate competence."
Crossrail awards tunnelling contracts - TunnelTalk, Dec 2010
Roll out of final tunnel contracts for Crossrail - TunnelTalk, Mar 2011
UK MSc course for Masters in tunnelling - TunnelTalk, Jul 2011
TUCA information brochure
British Tunnelling Society
National Vocational Qualifications
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