Thursday, 15 December 2016

A View From The Trenches

In a welcome diversion, I was out of the office for a couple of days this week, but it wasn't for leisure it was still work.

I was attending a training centre to re-qualify as a street works supervisor, something which has to be done every five years under the current rules. I realise that this is rather a niche subject, but it directly impacts on how roadworks are managed in the real world.

The "New Roads & Street Works Act 1991" NRSWA1991 is a "double" piece of legislation brought in firstly to provide "new" mechanisms for building and paying for new roads such as the Design, Build, Finance & Operate model (DBFO), tolling provisions and some tidying up. Secondly (and the subject of this post), to regulate street works (England & Wales) and road works (Scotland). Yes, the term "road works" applies only in Scotland if we wish to be pedantic (although it's not important here). For the street/ road works side, the Act was brought in to deal with the poor performance of utility works in terms of how sites were managed and installations/ reinstatements carried out. 

S67 of the Act (England & Wales) and S126 (Scotland) makes it a legal requirement for "undertakers" to ensure that their street/ road works are supervised by somebody with a prescribed qualification and that at least one operative on site (at all times) has a prescribed qualification. These sections also set the level of fines for failing to comply and gives power to the Secretary of State to make regulations on who can confer qualifications and how. There are variations within the UK countries, but again, probably a bit detailed for here.

The term "undertaker" generally applies to utility companies who have powers to "install, inspect, maintain, repair or replace apparatus" and this work is known as street works or road works; curiously, this excludes local authority works which are separately known as "works for roads purposes". Of course, the push for NRWSA1991 was partly about the way utility works were being managed and the impact on the condition of public highways. Anyhoo, back to the qualifications.

There are 16 training units. Unit 1 is for both operatives and supervisors, units 2 to 9 for operatives and units 10 to 16 for supervisors and are as follows;

Units of Competence for Trained Operatives
Unit 001 Location and avoidance of underground apparatus
Unit 002 Signing, lighting and guarding
Unit 003 Excavation in the road/highway
Unit 004 Reinstatement and compaction of backfill materials
Unit 005 Reinstatement of sub-base and road-base on non-bituminous materials
Unit 006 Reinstatement of cold-lay bituminous materials
Unit 007 Reinstatement of hot-lay bituminous materials
Unit 008 Reinstatement of concrete slabs
Unit 009 Reinstatement of modular surfaces and concrete footways

Units of Competence for Trained Supervisors
Unit 001 Location and avoidance of underground apparatus
Unit 010 Monitoring signing, lighting and guarding
Unit 011 Monitoring excavation in the road/highway
Unit 012 Monitoring reinstatement and compaction of backfill materials
Unit 013 Monitoring reinstatement of sub-base and road-base in non-bituminous materials
Unit 014 Monitoring reinstatement of bituminous materials
Unit 015 Monitoring reinstatement of concrete slabs
Unit 016 Monitoring reinstatement of modular surfaces and concrete footways

Combinations of these units give rise to the qualifications; 6 each for operatives and supervisors;

O1 Excavation in the road/highway 001, 002 and 003
O2 Excavation, backfilling and reinstatement - cold lay 001, 002, 003, 004, 005 and 006
O3 Reinstatement - hot and cold lay bituminous materials 001, 002, 006 and 007
O4 Reinstatement of concrete slabs 001, 002 and 008
O5 Reinstatement of modular surfaces and concrete footways 001, 002 and 009
O6 Signing, lighting and guarding 002

S1 Monitor excavation in the road/highway 001, 010 and 011
S2 Monitor excavation, backfilling and reinstatement - construction layers 001, 010, 011, 012, 013 and 014
S3 Monitor reinstatement - hot and cold lay bituminous materials 001, 010 and 014
S4 Monitor reinstatement of concrete slabs 001, 010 and 015
S5 Monitor reinstatement of modular surfaces and concrete footways 001, 010 and 016
S6 Monitor signing, lighting and guarding 010

You can see that there are combinations available. For example, if you are a company which just provides traffic management (the signs, cones and traffic signals for road works) then your operatives will only need unit 002 to give qualification O6 (and supervisors unit 010 to give S6). In the main, most people will have O1/S1 and O2/S2 with a specialism on the type of road construction. For example, those laying/ supervising asphalt will have O3/S3 and so on. Some people have dual qualification as both an operative and a supervisor which is very cool (and hard work).

Many years ago (!) I worked for a telecoms contractor and because we were involved in laying ducts and building inspection pits in all kinds of situations, I was initially trained up and gained qualifications S1 to S6 and over the years, I kept the qualifications up to date. Originally, there was no re-qualification process, one just sent in a form and paid an administration fee. These days, re-qualification (in England, it varies elsewhere) is required every five years and this involves attending a training centre to refresh knowledge and sit mini-exams for each unit (remembering that groups of units give the 6 qualifications); 8 in total for me.

There are various awarding bodies for the qualifications such as City & Guilds and CABWI (a water industry body). Qualifications are registered with the Street Works Qualifications Register and a card is issued (known as the "street works ticket" in the industry. One needs to carry the card on site as a local highway authority inspector can demand to see it as part of a site inspection and failure to produce can lead to a fine being imposed on the contractor.

Having gone through all of this, it might sound strange when I state that I am not a supervisor. In my day job, the work on site is done by contractors and they have their own supervision, I merely inspect works as a representative of the client and most of the time, we're not laying utilities; public lighting and traffic signals ducts/ pits are as close as it gets. Does having this type of qualification make one competent? The easy answer is "no". But it shows that the individual has a standard level of training and are at least capable of being let loose in the real world!

For those not supervising street works on a day to day basis, this type of qualification still has immense value. I am a firm believer that clients should be informed and therefore it's good practice for their engineers (or consultants) to have an appreciation of the processes involved in turning their designs or programmes into reality (and anything which exposes people to the real world is a good thing).

The other thing about gaining and maintaining the street works qualifications is that supervisors and operatives train together and notwithstanding the Chatham House Rule, there is the opportunity for some discussion (often pretty frank). This week, we got discussing a drainage contractor's current workload whereby he had a scheme of undertaking sewer repairs on pipes 8 metres deep. To get to the pipe, it took a hole 4 metres square and a week of digging and this must be a reminder that we have so many people in this country undertaking hard, physical work to keep our infrastructure maintained.

Street works is one of those areas of my industry which draws complaints about disruption, but we turn on a tap and it works, we flush the loo and it works and we expect the lights to come on at a flick of a switch. As I have often championed through my blog, those involved in street works are unsung heroes and perhaps we should pause for thought once in a while that the people you see out on the street have had to undertake training, they have had to gain and maintain their qualifications before a shovel goes in the ground.

The traditional way of thanking them is to bring out a tray of tea on a cold day or a nice cold drink in the summer. So come on folks, show your appreciation!


  1. I presume that these courses should include reference to:
    Although I presume that people get bored before they get to the section on "Cycle routed - look after cyclists"

  2. Hum, an undertaker. So who does bury all of the victims of road crashes that die from them? The person who designed the road with the inherent flaws that lead to the crash that would have been prevented under Duurzaam Veilig?