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Colin Parr MBE

Agency Workers and Health and Safety in Ship Building/Repair

(A personal view)

As some may remember I had been a contractor to ASWE in the 1960’s working on modifications to the DAA and DAB systems on various vessels, at training establishments and production facilities around England and Scotland. An enjoyable life until WSTG arrived on the scene with their peculiar, but better, Modus Operandi. I joined the MoD and eventually WSTG. However all good things come to an end and with the prospect of moving to Bristol I left the MoD in 1996.  

Within several years I realised that I missed working afloat and the camaraderie that goes with it. I decided to work part time (half a year) locally in ship repair. These parameters limited me to employment as a marine electrical fitter and I was soon on the books of a local Agency.

In the 1990’s the agencies were many and immature, only able to provide local personnel with electrical experience. I was contracted to work for the RN in a mixed civilian/RN team on RN ships in DED (Docking and Essential Defects). Most of the Agency workers I worked with had minimal ship repair/build and Health and Safety experience. On more than one occasion I saw full safety harness’s being worn back to front. I had many jobs in the Yard as an Agency worker.

The advent of the digital age allowed Agencies to have access to a supply of suitably skilled workers from all over the UK. The Agencies were thus forced to reduce in number and consolidate and I found myself working for a large local professional outfit that looked after their workforce. A local company with major company connections took over maintenance of the RFA’s (Royal Fleet Auxiliary (ships)) and I worked for them, mostly as an Agency worker on a local ‘as and when’ basis for 5 or so years on RFA DED’s in various ports in Hampshire and Dorset. Most jobs that I was involved with were time limited and thus had mandatory overtime. This attracted the ‘big hitters’ of the Agency workers who had worked for giant Multinationals on contracts around the world and on UK and European warships. Some of their home addresses (with token young wives) were fascinating; strange places abroad, many around the Pacific basin and in one case 2 hours flight from the nearest International airport in China. They say that they went home once a year. (As an aside, I am told that in some Pacific countries only locals can own property so they, in conjunction with locals, set up bars, clubs, shops where local males and females with the correct skills paid a substantial yearly rent to work out of those places, all excess monies were the club hosts/hostesses to keep. Goldmine stuff for all involved.)

The RFA crew work an on/off routine having a few months at home after each trip. I was again fascinated to discover where they had set up their homes abroad, perhaps not in the same league as the Agency workers but to go home to Portugal for a few months twice a year seems rather idyllic.

In 2005 the local company took over the outstanding defects on a carrier coming out of a Scottish refit. The work started alongside locally, but suddenly with the company having a full order book I found myself transferred to their payroll, at sea on the carrier, in charge of 50+ ‘company hard core’ and ‘big hitter agency workers’, most of whom I never met before sailing. I had a list of thousands of minor defects to be corrected and a 10ft container full of everything that might be needed on voyage - totally self-supporting. There’s over a thousand compartments on the carrier and I had to visit each one every day that had a defect to note the progress. Two months at sea split with a month in Rosyth on a fantastic wage. Incidentally, just as the carrier left Rosyth I took a plane to Southampton, spent one day at home celebrating my 60th birthday, then drove to Plymouth and got a ride on a Sea king back to the carrier, all within a space of a few days.  

It was a major change for me when in early 2009 the Agency offered me work on one of the new warships that were being built in the Yard. The hull was basically whole and the upper works were in place. There was only a few Agency workers along with a core of ship builder’s staff on board, but over the following months as more L,M and C parts became available for fitting, increasing numbers of Agency personnel were taken on.  

Tools for the build were readily available on board and were bar-coded in and out using individual clock cards. With the exception of cleaners and hot air guns everything was battery operated; they were good; charged overnight they lasted all day.  

From my first step in the ship building Yard it was evident that Health and Safety was a serious business – a good move. Ship building is about no 6 in the UK’s list of most dangerous trades. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Boots, overalls, helmets, safety glasses and ear plugs were mandatory. Boots and overalls for Agency workers, after the first rush, were self-supply thus they used what they could get hold of; a multitude of colours and company motifs and with limited washing facilities none too clean. When I bought a new pair someone else would always take on my thin old ones.  

I, as usual ended up in the engine rooms. They are either loved or hated and the average Agency worker lasts about 6 months, others for years, before finally escaping up into the passage ways or accommodation areas. A constant stream of Agency personnel continued to join both afloat and in the offices. Though they came with references it was obvious that some did not have any ship building experience and could not be left to work alone. The management eventually realised that not all had the correct skills and stipulated that all Agency workers had to show proof of a recognised apprenticeship and work on ships in the last 3 years. I offered my indentures up for perusal fitted in a polythene bag along with a pair of latex gloves on the grounds that they were so old!

The Agency workers came from all over the UK, a good bunch of hard workers - try anything - and proud of their work. However, with a limited amount of overtime available these weren’t the ‘big hitter’ world travelling workers of 10 years ago. These were a product of the shrinking engineering base of the UK; they have to travel to find work to survive. Taking advantage of the 4 day week they live in digs in Portsmouth 3 nights during the week and then travel home. Those further afield take advantage of the one or so days overtime over the weekend and go home about once every 6 weeks. They have flats in Portsmouth.  

Others like me only worked 9 months of the year and then, unlike me, travelled the world; imagine spending 3 months on a beach in Africa or India over Christmas for minimal expense. One Agency man I met was in his mid-50’s and owned a small holding in Wales. If moving to an area where the work was ongoing for a few years, he bought a little backstreet house on a mortgage, lived in one room and let the others. When the time came to move on, he let the whole house to pay the instalments. He could always come back to it should there be work in the area in the future. Adding up all the accommodation he owned he was worth several millions - on paper. The lad I worked with, a middle aged Scotsman, played a wind instrument in a Spanish Band in Tossa De Mar!

In the years between 1970’s to the 90’s the Yard, with a reducing work force, demolished a lot of unusable buildings, including dockside toilets and tarmacked the vacant spaces over for car parks. Spaces became a premium with the influx of the shipbuilders and their Agency workers. The Repair Yard works 5 day per week: 0730 till 1615 and 1245 Friday, whilst the Ship building Yard works a 4 day week Monday to Thursday 0630 till 1600. The times were offset to stagger the movement of staff during in/out muster times. Although the start time is 0630, if an employee is not parked by 0615 they have to park a long way from where they work. I turned in at 0600 and even then the car parks weren’t empty. EU law and the 48 hour week apparently prevented clocking before 0620. If you are not out of the Yard by 1610 then you were in a massive traffic jam of builders, repairers and ships staff.

With the ship afloat and compartments reaching a good standard, cleanliness became important and a local cleaning firm that employed mainly Polish girls moved their staff on-board. They put any previous cleaning firm to shame! They did a fantastic cleaning job bringing each compartment up to a perfect standard. Working a five day week they were extremely well turned out and had a working grasp of the English language – with unpronounceable names (to the English language speakers) they each adopted an anglicised version. The company had a ‘no touch’ rule and this was strictly adhered to. Loyalty however, they did not have; when the cleaning company on the next ship offered higher rates they moved ‘en bloc’ - but they all returned when the wage differential was reset.

The Multinational Company took over the whole commercial part of the Yard in 2010 and except for the company logo being displayed everywhere only minor changes took place - at first. For us at the back end, a morning role call was initiated on board every day at 0630 in which the days major events and dangers were highlighted. A role call and work area clean- up were also held at 1530. A weekly ‘tool box’ team brief was introduced in which the UK wide events of the Multinational’s week were read out.

Occasionally a ‘town square’ brief was held in the Yards garages for all ship builders to attend, to hear the way ahead by the Multinational’s senior shipbuilding hierarchy. They always got my respect because most of those fielded had been on their tools in shipbuilding at some time or other.

In 2011 work in Shipbuilding in Scotland was in hiatus and the Multinational bought Scotsmen of all trades and specialisations into the Yard in managerial posts and they brought many changes with them. They just have a different way of working and both ways get the job done - but we were not in Scotland. It was of amusement to us to point out that the fore end hull plates on the Type 45 (Portsmouth built) were far less buckled than the hull plates on the after half (Scottish built); again a different way of working. (The Arabs call warped plates the ‘hungry camel look’ and don’t like them.)

The destruction of the many toilet blocks throughout the Yard came back to bite. The ship with about 300 workers on board spent most of the fitting out time alongside one of the old Leander complexes built between two docks. Later on, the second ship fitting out, also with about 300 on board, was tied up on the other side of the complex. The complex’s junior rates heads were fitted with 8 cubicles, 12 wash basins. Quite a legal ratio it seems. The reasonably sized cubicles allowed the occupants to throw their overalls, helmets, coats etc. against the bottom of the door (not too hygienic) whilst they settled in. Outside the queue grew, we complained about the lack of cubicles to no avail. One Monday all the cubicle doors had the gap at the bottom raised to 0.5m and the top lowered to chest level. All were painted black; the graffiti is nasty and personal these days, the poets are long gone. Those who commissioned the modifications had not done their homework; the afloat workers are issued with white paint pens for marking out. The threat to put ultra violet lights in the toilets were never pursued (drugs). Portacabins fitted out as toilets were sited around the ship but they are so small, perpetually wet and smelly, Houdini would have had difficulty in using them in the winter; Most of us took to walking to the other complex.

In early 2012 I returned after an extended holiday and reported to Unicorn Gate for the Agencies rep to go through standard joining routine. A half day of form filling and health and safety indoctrination, usually in batches of about 10, with a meeting old friends and making of new ones. Horrors! The procedure had been changed: we were also required to do a one and half day trade test. In an effort to standardise the installation of equipment throughout the ships, the Multinational wanted all skilled trades in the Yard to carry out a trade test starting with us. We duly carried out the trade test in the training centre, overseen by personnel with whom I worked alongside afloat for the last 3 years. My quip that the infirm and rubbish were usually found jobs ashore was taken in the manner that it had been given!

Back into the engine rooms nothing seems to have been changed. The ship, we found, was due to sail at the end of the week and within 4 days we were told that it was all a mistake and we were to be laid off. But wait! As the ship returns in 2 months we might do a runner so we were transferred to the next ship in construction until then. The next ship ‘was dead’. The temperature of the engine room structure in spite of hot air fans was just above zero. Laying or sitting on the metalwork was near impossible, extra clothes were being worn all the time- instead of just outside; they reduced movement and I was concerned that they would hinder my agility in case of escape and in the use of those portacabin toilets. I left.

The phone call came 2 months later as expected; start tomorrow. 10 of us again that day ready for the obligatory joining routine met the Agencies Rep at Unicorn Gate. More horrors! The joining procedures had changed yet again. Our permanent passes were taken away and we were given an escorted day pass. Under the eyes of the gate guard force, we were led across the road to the medical centre and given a physical and drugs test. These tests were to be made mandatory for all working in the Yard. 9 of us passed the drugs test, the 10th failed. I had not met him before, he had driven from Port Glasgow the day before, and arriving with a splitting headache he had taken Co-codamol! The agencies rep told him in no uncertain terms that he was not considered acceptable for employment; should he wish to complain, the results of a second test of his sample would be available within a week and if it was due to co-codamol he would be taken on. The company would not accept or pay the expenses for his journeys. He was escorted out of the gate. As for me I was exempt the Trade test. I found later that the trade test for the joiner in the same group was to drill and tap various threads in 3mm steel plate. My pass was to be returned with the production of two proofs of identity, I had my passport but unfortunately my driving license does not have a photo. The production of my bus pass completed the transaction.

The team leader who I had always worked for in the engine rooms, was an ex diesel submariner of 50 built like a short rugby player. His mandatory medical for sea trials found that he had very high blood pressure; he continued to work and took pills but not long after he didn’t come in to work anymore. Just after that the Multinational, made individual initiated blood pressure checks available.

The Multinational since taking over has definitely moved in a positive direction in Health and Safety and the local Management have got to a position where it is beyond reproach in its implementation. For example, for working off of ladders, steps etc. the operator must have 3 points of contact, Foot, Calf and Knee. Of course, to that end step ladders with three rungs were withdrawn! Scaffolding, if it could improve safety was almost always used. Scaffolding however has its problems with clearance on the underside; one always seemed to collide with poles and bolts, and it wasn’t the helmet that was damaged but the neck. The wood deals used in the scaffolding were rough sawn so crawling or sliding along them usually introduced splinters, sometimes in the worst of places.

The Multinational in 2012 introduced a boot/overall company onto the site to issue to all and sundry with standard Multinational Logo marked fireproofed overalls. They are individually bar marked, and it is expected that they are to be changed for clean ones once a week, or sooner. One just had to make sure that the replacement ones had not previously and obviously been worn by painters or welders! Whilst in the boot/overall shop queuing to change my overalls, it was to my, and all others amusement, when the team leader of the boat shop apprentices brought his entire brood in to change their overalls. He was not in a too happy a mood because the entire group, male and female, wore torn, filthy, frayed around the heels, stinking overalls that certainly had not seen any cleaning for months if ever. Perhaps the apprentices were of the opinion that they were in a hippy commune

Electrical fitters were supplied with multi-voltage probes to be carried and used at all times. Also a thin version of armoured gloves is soon to be mandatory to prevent cuts from the ubiquitous stainless steel banding; some don’t readily accept gloves and I watched one lad trying to disk cut the fingers off the gloves. He was not able.

The vessel I worked on for 3 years is certainly at the cutting edge of design and is very compact. To allow access to some of the engine room bilge sections, major pipe work in the section has to be removed. It not difficult to get down through the pipes and fittings but almost impossible to climb out of; one just can’t raise the arms, knees and feet and can only be pulled out. As the ship became more alive, the ‘breathability of air’ in confined spaces became of great concern; it became forbidden to enter such places without a top man (guard) and a lot of paperwork/tallies and individual air monitors. We all attended a one day’s course in which we were taught how to be a top man and the use of breathing apparatus. A top man was not there to rescue personnel but to seek specialist help. To that end a rescue section has been set up in the Yard with personnel who seemed to be scrawny ex rock climbers with pony tails and black overalls covered in hooks and ropes, and on call to rescue any one trapped. They quite rightly control the access of the ambulance service but it is scary.

I have met many female skilled workers amongst the company core workers and the cleaners afloat but I have never met a female Agency skilled worker. My daughter did work however for an Agency on banding the cross passage main cable runs on a carrier alongside in the Yard!

A change to the Health and Safety legislation for shipbuilding requires that all personnel employed, have attended 10 safety courses. To name a few, Confined spaces, labelling of fire extinguishers, manual handling, etc. I didn’t complete all mine; standing on ladders and guard rails for too many years I damaged my instep. Health and Safety also relies on one’s own assessment of the risk. I had been in the Yard for 46 years and health and safety has come a long way from just being issued with green overalls; I supplied my own boots and flat cap!

I wasn’t the oldest on the ship. He was 71 and on night shift. Good on the Multinational for employing us.  

There won’t be many left in the ship building Yard when all the Agency workers have moved on.