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Mike Syrett Chats To UK Construction Online

Smye-Rumsby are specialists in the supply of two-way radios from analogue to digital – to every type of business across the UK, Europe and worldwide.

Could you give a brief overview of why good communication is essential for lifting operations on site?

“It is imperative, certainly when it comes to tower cranes, that the banksman has complete communication with all of his cranes because the dangers resulting from not doing so could have severe consequences.

There was an incident recently on a construction site in Southampton, where the use of licence free radios led to communications being compromised by an unauthorised person situated adjacent to the site. This person was also using a licence free radio and managed to talk with one of the crane operators without the banksman’s knowledge, resulting in a person nearly ending up with a severed arm.

It’s vital that the crane driver is using the correct hands free equipment in the cab to ensure he is in control of the crane at all times and also he doesn’t receive interference from an outside source.”

What are the dangers involved in using mobile phones as opposed to radio communication?

“Some construction sites may be situated in areas where there is poor mobile phone signal coverage. A mobile phone may offer a full duplex system but can prove to be a huge distraction, certainly in the case of smart phones. This isn’t an issue with radios.

Radio communication also provides a vital safety feature in the event of an emergency situation where at the touch of one button, you can speak to all radio users on the site at the same time. Relying on mobile phones might require the user to make ten separate calls to achieve the same end result.”

What are the advantages of using radio over other forms of communication?

“A radio signal is a standalone system; it’s either working back-to-back from radio to radio or in some cases where you need to reach subterranean floors, you can run a repeater, antenna or leaky feed system.

Using radios allows communication from ground level to as many subfloors as required with the right equipment. This is something that can’t be achieved using mobile phones.

We also have what is called a ‘man down’ function. If you get a person incapacitated, the radio would go into a horizontal position. This indicates that the user has fallen over and would see a bleep warning issued.

However, the warning is only truly useful if you know where the downed person is situated. That sort of technology as and when it becomes more affordable will be used more frequently on construction sites.

‘Lone worker’ is another feature. Tracker beacons can be placed on a building and if a radio user enters an intrinsically unsafe area, you can kill the radio off instantly. It may be a gas volatile area, the radio is null and void until he leaves the area, passing the beacons and allowing the radio is switched back on.

It is also possible to have a control system that allows a supervisor to look at a computer screen and see where all the radio users are. If you were a site manager and had six forklift trucks and needed to pick up some bricks, you would be able to see which vehicle was free or closer and dispatch it to collect the pallet. It’s about working smarter.”

How reliable are modern day digital radios in terms of loss of signal?

“It’s its own medium – the signal is generated from the handset or a fixed mobile from radio to radio or via a repeater.

I have been working on the Northern Line Extension so again it’s an underground communication system where it is imperative that people can talk from the ground to the underground to the people boring the tunnel. The guys on this project can use radios with full confidence that communications will be uninterrupted and uncompromised.”

Is there a possibility of somebody else using the same frequency on a nearby site giving confusing signals?

“There are various ofcom licences available and also technically assigned licences to prevent these issues.

A technically assigned licence means you own a particular frequency for that geographic area. Anybody found using that frequency within that given area would be doing so illegally and would face the consequences.

That scenario is, however, extremely unlikely to happen.”

Can you tell me about foot switches in tower cranes and how they relate to good health and safety practices?

“Recently the design of the terex crane has changed slightly. There used footwell has been replaced by safety bars to the range of vision of the crane driver around his feet.

We have just developed alluminum plates to go over the bars and it acts just like a sewing machine switch, where the crane driver pushes his foot on the switch to operate the radio.

We run a minute cable from the radio set located above him to a visor microphone, which will pick up the driver’s voice without the need for them to speak directly into a microphone. The driver pushes his foot on the button when the sound from the receiving signal comes via the fixed mobile speaker.

This is actually the preferred set up by the Health and Safety Executive would like to see in operation.”

Does the use of radio provide an opportunity to reduce the risk of accidents on site?

“Digital radio communications has a feature called background noise cancellation. In a noisy environment, a worker would be wearing ear defenders but they can be equipped with an earpiece running through the ear protection. It even comes with a small PTT (push to talk) microphone that can be clipped onto their clothing.

The background noise cancellation means that the instructions can be relayed clearly without being drowned out by noise from the site.

This can prevent any miscommunications and distractions that could potentially lead to a serious accident.”

Can you tell me about group calling?

“If you need to relay an urgent message across a construction site, a simple touch of a button means you can speak to everyone issued with a radio.

With certain radios that I am trying to introduce to construction sites, each has an ID so there is also a facility to private call somebody on site. So for example, if the gate man receives a visitor and needs to speak only with the site agent, he can scroll down the names list and converse with him without everyone else being privy to it.”

Do you anticipate any technical advancements for radio in the near future?

“Radio technology is changing almost at a daily rate at the moment. On the horizon, there are radios that would use the 4G network, giving less need for repeaters by using the mobile phone network.

These are fully duplex radios that would allow two-way conversations just like you would on a mobile phone. On a radio, you push a button to talk and the other person receives. This technology will actually allow people to speak at the same time.”

Could the government do more to raise awareness in the construction industry of the advantages of using radio communication?

“I have just had a conversation with a client telling him he should not use licence free radios on a construction site. There is no law to say you can’t but the consequences in doing so could be catastrophic.

Anybody can go to their local retailers and purchase a radio and use them and interfere with critical communication on site.

Highlighting what equipment to use is important but that doesn’t necessarily need to come from the government. The HSE should make their voices heard and say this isn’t just a recommendation, it is a legal requirement – you have to use licenced radios.

Unfortunately, there are some people out there who would take pleasure in passing false communication to a crane driver and observing the consequences.

Sadly, it feels to me like the HSE are dragging their feet on this issue and until it is addressed, the risks will remain in play.”

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