Nigel Church is a Product Trainer with Cutting Edge Training, an operating division of Ransomes Jacobsen. A well-known and highly respected figure within the industry for over 40 years, he began his career as an apprentice at Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies in 1970 and has worked in the UK and Europe. In this article, he looks at the value of staff training and its role as an important investment for any business
All businesses need to invest - in buildings and facilities, and in plant and machinery. Such investments are easy for accountants and finance people to understand as they add tangible assets to a business. Company Directors can see the new machinery and facilities, so it's clearly visible for everyone to see how this type of investment adds value to the business; it's quite obvious where the money has gone.
On the other hand, the training of a company's most important asset, its staff, is often translucent at best and opaque at worst. Training must be considered as an investment in any business, as it's impossible to operate successfully without good and properly trained people. Your transparent investments in machinery and plant can soon be undone by failing to train your staff to use and maintain it correctly.
In our industry sector, you must have a certificate to operate a chainsaw at work. You must have a sprayer qualification to operate a sprayer.
The regulations are clear and easy to understand, but there is more to it than that. All employees must receive adequate training for all work equipment, whether there is a legal requirement for certification or not. So a mower operator must be give adequate training before he is allowed to use either a pedestrian or a ride-on machine.
However, what is not clear is the definition of 'adequate training'. In the event of a serious accident, and in worse-case scenarios this may be decided by a judge in a court of law, not being able to prove that the operator had received adequate training could be a real issue. External training providers will issue a certificate to prove that an operator has undergone training and will also detail what the training programme covered, to ensure that the employer has a record to refer back to. Certificated training supported by National Awards Bodies (such as LANTRA and NPTC) will be easily recognised by any auditor.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with internal staff training, and learning from experienced, competent staff is a key factor in passing on and gaining experience. However, there is often no paperwork to determine what information or advice has been given, and the major drawback here is that it's impossible to prove the quality of the training at a later date.
Accidents can, do and will happen; even the most experienced staff will have accidents, but they have less mishaps than operators who have not been trained. Thankfully, most accidents result in damaged machinery, not damaged operators, but these are still expensive events. Machinery repairs cost money and the downtime caused can be very expensive. Any accident which causes damage to third party property not only causes yet more additional cost, but damages the reputation of the business.
In our sector, trained operators should know how to correctly set and adjust their machinery. Simple adjustments to the weight transfer system, the operation of traction controls systems, or adjustments to the mowing deck, can make a big difference to the performance of the machine, particularly during a tough growing season like this one. Thick, wet, lush grass can be a real issue for mowers, so good training can make a real difference.
Adjusting cutting cylinders and removing debris from cutting units can be particularly hazardous. Fingers can, all too easily, be lost and all operators should be trained to adjust these important items, correctly and safely.
Understanding the need to assess each site before mowing, especially during a wet season, is also essential. Too many operators just drive on without thinking about surface conditions until it is too late.
This was highlighted recently when footage emerged of the moment of muddy madness when a council worker took a professional ride-on mower onto a patch of wet greensward and turned it into a churned up mud bath within minutes.
A large municipal council was left red-faced as local residents filmed the incident and posted it on social media. In a report in a national newspaper the Council's executive member for neighbourhoods says, "Our operatives are instructed that grass is not to be mowed during or immediately after periods of wet weather. So we would like to apologise to the residents affected for any disruption caused by this mistake. We have investigated the incident and officers have attended the site to determine the best course of remedial action. The worker responsible will be spoken to and reminded of his responsibilities".
In the example above, a very basic site assessment would have saved an embarrassing phone call, an angry manager, a lot of wasted time and a damaged site.
For the brushcutter operator in this image, some basic training in site specific risk assessment would be worthwhile, also a review of how far thrown debris can travel from a brushcutter head might be appropriate. Some of you will also note that there is no hearing or face protection being worn either!
It's not just the safety of the machine and the operator which is at stake, it's the overall performance which suffers. Blunt blades on rotary mowers result in a poor cut quality, meaning that operators have to slow down to get the grass cut, and this burns both fuel and expensive man hours unnecessarily. Blunt blades smash the grass, which causes additional clumping. It leaves a very poor after cut appearance and the mower deck can be clogged with grass mulch. It's not always possible to keep blades in pristine condition, but they can be kept sharp.
Again, it adds lost time in unnecessary cleaning. Machines with collecting systems are particularly prone to clogging in wet conditions, and blunt blades make this so much worse. It really is a false economy. All operators really should check the condition of their blades every day and report all defects to their line manager.
Blunt or worn out blades and bottom blades can produce an equally poor cut from cylinder mowers as well. Poor adjustment practice results in rounded off blades and grass being chewed and torn off, instead of cut. Many operators this year have had to double cut areas to get a reasonable finish.
The additional cost to a business is huge, with additional time spent on each area, and the resulting backlog of uncut grass elsewhere. It's the operators responsibility to keep their machinery well-adjusted and to report all faults and defects.
It's also very much in the business's interest to keep these machines working at maximum performance through the season, and sharp blades are at the forefront of mowing performance. After all, this is the main part of the mower that actually cuts the grass in the first place!
When faults and defects are reported, it is the line manager's responsibility to get them fixed. Regular sharpening, or replacement of blunt cutting blades is not a difficult task, it just needs to be done. Operators who report faults, only to see them routinely ignored, will simply stop reporting them, which only causes greater problems and costs further down the line. Supervisors and managers need to audit the machinery regularly and ensure that the operators keep up with maintenance and regular cleaning, and ensure that they report all faults immediately.
Daily checks and maintenance
A good training course is about so much more than just how to drive the machine. As stated above, it's about setting and adjustments, understanding all the controls and switches, as they are all there for a purpose. Another essential part of a good training course is the daily checks and operator level maintenance requirements.
There can be greasing points hidden all over the machine, and they all need regular attention. The operator's instruction book will detail all the maintenance requirements, but whoever reads one of those? (see Pitchcare February-March 2016)
It's not just the operators who need to understand this either. Managers and supervisors need to attend training so that they appreciate that some machines will have in excess of forty greasing points, and this, together with the need for a thorough clean, will mean at least one hour in the workshop per week. Every machine should have a weekly clean and service, and this time requirement should be built into the working week. It's a small investment compared with the cost of expensive failures and repairs.
A good example of the need to regularly clean the machine is shown here. Yes, that's cut grass building up under the seat and it's touching the exhaust pipe! This had already been charred black in places, so a machine fire was only a matter of time. Luckily for the operator (and the owner), that did not happen in this instance.
It's been a very tough year for municipal mowing in particular. Contractors and councils have been up against record growth with regular wet weather and saturated ground. Machinery and staff have had to work hard in difficult conditions right from the start of the season. In such conditions, it has never been more important to have well trained staff operating your front line equipment. The potential improvements in performance and reliability should make regular, ongoing staff training an obvious choice.
Staff Retention - what if we train them and they leave?
So often, there is a reluctance to train seasonal staff as they can often leave shortly after training, perhaps to move to a similar position (for more money) or leave the industry completely.
However, seasonal staff are probably more likely to have accidents, due to inexperience, than your regular team. And, if they are using powered equipment then, as stated at the beginning of this piece, by law they must receive 'adequate training' (as well as a full set of PPE), regardless of how long they may stay with you.
Staff Retention - what if we don't train them and they stay?
If they are correctly trained, and made to feel part of the business, they are more likely to stay. They are also less likely to damage equipment or machinery through ignorance or misuse. If they are not trained, they will only know the bad habits of other operators and, once a regular worker, they will continue to cost you money in damage, downtime and poor performance.
So, what is the value of training?
It's obvious really; it's a business investment opportunity you simply cannot afford to miss! It works on all levels - for the recipient of the training and in the benefits to the business. Remove the opacity, embrace it and see it for what it