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16th February 2021

HEAVY TORQUE FEATURE – ISSUE 25 – POWER TO THE PEOPLE

Ainscough Crane Hire has been featured in issue 25 of HeavyTorque, a leading magazine for the heavy and abnormal transport sector and heavy lifting industry. We are proud to be recognised, and a round of applause to Bryan Winstanley for photography, take a look here:

Ainscough Crane Hire’s ‘Make the Safe Choice’ culture empowers its operators to operate safely on every lift, every time. Heavy Torque are impressed with its ‘boots-to-boardroom’ approach to quality, health safety, and the environment.

Let’s try a bit of word association. We say: ‘Ainscough Crane Hire…now you say?’ If you’re still scratching your head, you’re probably reading the wrong magazine. Like ‘Hoover’ and ‘Transit’, Ainscough Crane Hire has become the generic term for crane hire in the UK lifting-industry. And not without good reason either. Despite all the current challenges of COVID-19, Ainscough Crane Hire remains No 1 in the latest ‘Top 30’ league-table for UK mobile crane hirers as compiled by Cranes & Access magazine. Putting the company’s ‘outreach’ into context, Ainscough’s head of transport Marcus Gough rattles-off some impressive stats: “We’re the UK’s leading lifting-solutions company with a national network of 30-locations, stretching from the Scottish Highlands to Exeter in the South West. Our 900-plus workforce operates a fleet of more-than 400 cranes with up-to 1,000-tonnes capacity. It’s the largest and most diverse fleet of cranes in the country, supported by 150-plus trucks, vans and smaller plant.” All-in-all, says Gough matter-of-factly, “It’s a unique proposition for our customers across the UK.”

Making sure each bit of kit is in the right place when it’s needed is a job in itself as Gough acknowledges. “Keeping track of all the ancillaries can be problematic. However, Ainscough has developed its own internal web-based ‘Ancillary Tracking-Tool’ which tracks everything.

That tool will have an extra bit of tracking work to do now that Ainscough has taken delivery of 12 new V8 Scania XT S-cab 6×4 tractive units. All are plated for STGO operations and will be used to support the company’s all-terrain mobile, mobile-tower, crawler and heavy-crane fleet throughout the country, hauling crane ballast weights, crane ancillaries and anything else that’s needed on-site during a lifting operation. Premium trucks for the UK’s premier mobile crane company. And it’s a relationship that’s been in place for over five years.
The day of Heavy Torque’s photographic shoot just happened to coincide with Ainscough’s crane-fleet truck drivers receiving their vehicle handover training on the new XTs, courtesy of Jason Garvey, driver product training consultant at Haydock Commercial Vehicles, the local supporting dealer. As might be expected, Garvey was busy taking them through every aspect of the new tractors – a full-day’s learning. Gough tells us: “The drivers told me it was the most comprehensive handover they’d ever had with plenty of one-to-one explanation.” Not that that’s anything unusual for the UK’s No 1 crane-hire company. “It’s our standard process that no-one drives a vehicle or operates a piece of kit before they’ve been properly trained on it,” says Gough emphatically.

Along with a complete 360º external vehicle walk-around, class-room sessions and full cockpit familiarisation, Garvey’s training program also took the Ainscough drivers through the various smartphone apps that provide information on the truck and how to get the best from them. And as many of the control features on the S-series can be set-up to suit individual driver preferences Gough continues: “Jason spent time with each driver individually, helping them set things up to exactly the way they want them. Trucks today as so ‘customisable’ to a driver’s needs and wants and all that stuff can be easily taken for granted. But he went through everything with them, he’s very thorough. It was a ‘full’ handover.” A good call, especially considering that if you want to get the best from a modern truck it pays to know it inside out. However, as they say on TV, we’ll have more on that story and the new Scanias in a moment…first things first.

Gough, who is 51, joined Ainscough Crane Hire in May 2019, bringing with him over 35-years’ experience in the crane and heavy-haulage sectors, including 14-years regular and reserve service in the military with the Royal Engineers and Royal Logistics Corps. He’s not the only one in the company with a service background. “We’ve actually got a lot of ex-military guys in the business,” he tells us. “It’s an appealing industry sector to ex-servicemen.”

How come? Along with what Gough describes as “A natural ethos of our teamwork value”, there are clear synergies between the army and civvy-street when it comes to operating cranes and heavy-trucks. “I think it’s the ‘big boys’ toys’!” he says with a laugh. “We’ve a lot of guys from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) and the Royal Engineers with experience with cranes and recovery vehicles. Their skills are obviously-transferrable.” With tongue firmly-in-cheek, he adds: “It’s just different coloured bits of kit, instead of an olive drab green crane it’s a big yellow and blue one!” For the record Ainscough Crane Hire’s recently appointed Chief Executive Peter Gibbs is also ex-military, having served 18-years in the army.

Ahead of any HeavyTorque interview we usually check- out a company’s website to see what they’re saying about themselves. Searching through the Ainscough site we came across an interesting news item about one of its crane operators who’d received plaudits from a customer for showing extra-vigilance during a recent job. Paul Furey was lifting a large lump of machinery for contractors Wilson James in Macclesfield and although the required Risk Assessments Method Statements and Safe Systems of Works were all firmly in place, he stopped the lift a number of times to ensure everything was 100 per cent safe – not least as he suspected there were minor variations in the lifting-plan that needed examining. Only when he was totally happy did he complete the job with his 55-tonne crane.

Furey’s extra-safe attitude didn’t go unnoticed. Not long afterwards, Wilson James presented him with an award for guaranteeing the safety of the lift, with WJ’s logistics manager Ondrej Stepan commenting: “It was great to see someone questioning things in the manner Paul did, and sticking to his guns till he was satisfied with the answers and proof. He’s a credit to Ainscough, and it was only right he should be awarded for his proactive and positive attitude towards health and safety.”

Gough insists Furey’s action is typical of Ainscough’s ‘Make the Safe Choice’ approach, under which every member of a lifting team, whether the ‘Appointed Person’, lifting supervisor, slinger or crane operator, is empowered to say ‘Stop!’ any time they feel safety might be compromised. It may lead to the occasional tense discussion with a client, but the company’s attitude will always be – if it can’t be done safely, it won’t be done by Ainscough Crane Hire.

Indeed, Gough confirms “Health and Safety sits at the very top of our core values. ‘Make the Safe Choice’ is at the very heart of everything we do. We created it based on our teams’ experience in delivering safe crane lifts over the past 40-years.”

The key lies in what Gough calls ‘collaborative responsibility’. “Every team member’s opinion is valued – regardless of job, title or hierarchy. It’s instilled in them that they should never have to think twice about raising concerns and making that safe choice. Ultimately, everyone has the authority, courage, conviction and support to stop any job if they are not 100 per cent comfortable with the task being undertaken, whether they’re a crane supervisor, a ballast support (HGV) driver, or the crane operator” When we suggest it’s ‘bottom-up’ empowering Gough offers this interesting alternative. “We call it ‘Boots-to-Boardroom!’.” Whatever it is, it’s about learning from experience, preventing accidents in an industry where things can go wrong.

Using regular company-wide safety stand-downs Ainscough taps into a vast pool of colleague experiences which can be shared. “It’s how we learn and evolve,” says Gough. “All of our employees are encouraged to let us know how we can continually improve the process. This is our ‘open to new ideas’ value in order to further improve on our approach to safety.”

Nevertheless, when it comes to protecting its employees COVID-19 has presented the company with a very different set of obstacles to overcome. “These have been challenging times,” admits Gough. “But Ainscough has adapted and supported its team, clients and the industry. We’ve embraced the challenges of working safely in a COVID-19 environment. We’re all immensely proud of how the team has reacted in this situation and the contribution everyone has made.” While COVID-19 certainly hasn’t done the business any favours when it comes to maintaining revenue streams – after lockdown crane utilisation levels dropped significantly – Gough now sees room for some optimism. “There’s been a gradual improvement week-on-week as the industry has come back to work.”

But how do you operate in the middle of a pandemic? Gough again: “Our teams took a wide range of steps to ensure the safety of workers and the community, while the construction industry reduced the numbers onsite to enable social distancing and to concentrate on the most critical areas of construction.” That said, he freely acknowledges: “C-19 was, and continues to be, very challenging. But we’ve found ways to work safely and have been seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’ throughout the pandemic.”

Where possible, office support-staff are now working from home and those employees that have to be in the depots are all socially-distancing. Having previously used Microsoft Teams for on-line meetings, Gough reports “We’ve found it very useful throughout the crisis.” Weekly on-line business continuity briefings ensure everyone is kept abreast of the latest developments, and actions that need to be taken, while through Teams Ainscough has also created its own health and well-being ‘channel’ which provides help and advice around new ways of working including diet and exercise. “In other words, we’re looking after each other,” says Gough.

Interestingly, during the pandemic Ainscough has witnessed a noticeable increase in its contract-lift business, where it takes on an entire lifting-job, from initial assessment and planning through to final completion. Although the company’s business is currently split between its regular crane hire and contract lifting work, Gough sees the latter is growing, not least as a result of COVID-19. “More customers are coming to us for the whole solution. It saves having to put more people on site and for them having to manage their people’s safety. We’ve got risk assessment procedures in place that control the C-19 environment. It’s almost second nature to our people so it’s a good offering to our customers. As volumes are rising-back to pre-COVID levels, we’re seeing more-and-more clients opting for contract lift over crane hire.”

It sounds to us like a classic case of ‘leave it to the professionals’, particularly when it comes to safe-lifting– something Ainscough’s CEO Peter Gibbs highlighted in a recent interview with Cranes & Access. “I notice that most incidents tend to occur on crane-hire jobs, rather than on contract lifts when experts are on the job and the lift is well- planned. As a result, they tend to be safe and efficient from start-to-finish.” Meanwhile, Ainscough will continue to offer crane hire with a driver operator within its business portfolio. After all, that’s how the business started 40-years ago. But there’s no question that contract lift gives it total control over the single most important factor in any lift – safety.

Operating in increasingly sensitive urban areas means crane and heavy-haulage operators having to raise their ‘green’ game, something Gough readily recognises. “All industries are seeing a movement toward sustainable works. We’ve all got to do our bit to ensure that the planet’s resources are preserved.” To that end, the company is investing heavily in new capital equipment. All Ainscough crane hire trucks are Euro-6 models.

Thanks to that investment Gough is confident Ainscough Crane Hire’s trucks will meet any tighter local air-quality demands. “The move towards both low and ultra-low emission zones across the country doesn’t present us with a very-significant hurdle. Rather, it’s contributed to us being able to maintain high uptime levels and deliver the high- levels of reliability for customers. Our oldest trucks are four-years-old and they’ll be replaced next year as part of our on-going sustainability plan.”

However, the challenges of operating heavy trucks in congested cities clearly go beyond emissions. There’s the issue of how to protect vulnerable road users (VRUs).
Ainscough currently holds FORS (Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme) Silver standard and is a CLOCS (Construction Logistics and Community Safety) champion too. Gough reports: “All qualifying vehicles meet the required standards for Direct Vision 2020 to ensure the highest possible safety for all [other] road users. It all falls into the sustainability and green credentials that any business must-have.” To meet the DVS standard, all the new Scania XT tractors have been fitted with multi-channel CCTV systems and proximity sensors to alert the driver to the presence of any VRU.

Having the right trucks is one thing. Getting them onto a site with limited access and subject to local curfews is another, especially if the truck happens to be a 100-tonne rated Cat 3 STGO artic subject to movement orders. For Gough, it all boils down to close consultation with the right people. “We’ve built good relationships with local authorities and the enforcement agencies based on many years of experience. By embracing a collaborative-approach we always manage to find a solution to any obstacles. It’s almost part of the day job dealing with this because we’re very experienced and have a very good team so it doesn’t cause anyone a major headache. It’s expected – we just deal with it.”

To cement those relationships Ainscough Crane Hire holds regular meetings and practical demonstrations at its depots and training centres for clients and enforcement agencies. “We’ve had very successful engagement days with the DVSA [Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency] and Police and network Rail,” explains Gough. “They get a hands-on approach to a crane and how we go about doing the day-job so they’re comfortable that if it’s Ainscough that wants to do this or that they know we’ll do it safely.”

Like safety, training sits high-up on Ainscough’s corporate agenda, not least to ensure continuity of skilled staff for the future. Along with running various training programmes (both for its own staff and outside companies) covering all aspects of lifting operations, the company recently created an industry first with its on-line training scheme for an Appointed Person, opening-up the qualification to a wide- range of companies and individuals.

“We also plan to introduce apprenticeships for crane operators, which is another investment for the future of the company, which will help support our growth strategy and enable us to develop a sustainable workforce for the years ahead,” says Gough. Add to that a successful crane technician scheme which has been in operation for several years he insists “It’s a real boost to our internal knowledge base and demonstrates that this kind of investment really returns dividends. We’re investing in training to deliver an industrial skills legacy that will live on past our time.”

Gough is certainly not averse to doing some practical training himself. As a long-time HGV-licence holder, he says “I’ve been known to keep my hand-in and join the driving team, taking a truck out on a job so I can really tune-in to any tailored training that’s current and effective for the driving team. All our drivers have taken to the streets on bicycles as part of the Safe Urban Driving Scheme (SUDS) module within the FORS Silver accreditation.” And he reports: “I have to say that the SUDS course is one of the best courses I’ve done. It really did bring it.
home from the cyclists’ perspective. I think it’s very, very valuable and well worth the investment in our HGV drivers’ development.”

In line with its own high-standards Ainscough Crane Hire has high expectations of a supplier. “It’s got to be an aligned-brand standard, it’s got to offer service, reliability and value,” asserts Gough. When it comes to buying vehicles for Ainscough Crane Hire’s truck fleet – whose job is to support the company’s cranes wherever they might be working, moving anything from crane ancillaries to ballast weights – the chassis choice of late has been Scania.

“Haydock Commercial Vehicles and Scania GB have supplied and maintained trucks for Ainscough since 2015,” confirms Gough. “It’s an existing relationship during which solid foundations have been forged aligning the brands of both Scania and Ainscough Crane Hire. The priority considerations for the tender were safety, environmental and comfort, so it was without question that Haydock Commercial Vehicles would be invited to tender for the replacement vehicles that we’ve just put on the road.”

The 12 new ‘XT’ heavy-duty V8 tractors are made-up of 10 S580, and two S650, three-axle tractors. All of them are built for Cat 3 STGO operations and are based at company operating centres throughout the UK. Each is covered by a five-year R&M package with Haydock Commercial Vehicles managing all servicing and repairs via local dealers within Scania’s GB network.

“We have a service level agreement with Scania GB, which means we work closely with a number of dealers around the country to maintain the vehicles, so we don’t have to bring them all the way back to Haydock Commercials” explains Gough. While vehicle servicing can take place overnight or even on-site Gough says simply: “We wouldn’t say that’s anything unusual. It’s the expected norm for our service expectations. We’ve been very satisfied over the last number of years with both Scania and Haydock Commercials, hence the latest order with Haydock now.”

Driver reaction to the new Scania XTs has been extremely positive says Gough. “The feedback has been absolutely astounding. I’d say the S-Series is game-changing.” On top of the flat-floor S-cab’s premium spec Ainscough has had many extras fitted including microwaves, fridges, TV/ DVD players, and heated driver’s leather seats, reflecting the amount of time it’s drivers spend in their cabs. “We also specced the swivelling ‘Captain’s passenger seat to make it more comfortable for the drivers, along with pocket-sprung mattresses, a top infotainment system including Apple-play capability, remotely-operated night heater and a cooling function that can operate without the engine running.”

All that extra electrical kit clearly presents a significant power-load when the truck is parked-up. However, Gough says: “All the vehicles have got a mains plug-in facility so this relieves the battery-system as we can provide the cab’s power by a mains-plug at our depots. And as we don’t need to run the engine to maintain the batteries that’s another one of our environmental credentials.”

On that last point Gough continues: “As part of our sustainability plan, we’re considering alternative fuels for both plant and trucks. The new Scanias can run on HVO [Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil] fuel which is one of the cleanest on the market. It’s a second-generation advanced biofuel that eliminates up to 90 per cent of Net CO2 [carbon dioxide] and significantly reduces NOx [nitrogen oxides], particulate matter and CO emissions.” Only right now Gough is frustrated by limited HVO (Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil) availability on the UK’s strategic road network..

“It’s the classic chicken-and-egg scenario – we’re having to wait for the infrastructure to catch-up. We’d like to switch to HVO, but the issue is getting hold of it on the road network. Additionally, as our trucks can gross-out at 100-tonnes, HVO pumps simply may not be accessible to them because everything that goes on the road has to be on a notified route.” It’s a similar story when it comes to electrification. “We do operate several hybrid cranes that have the capability of working from electric power supplies on-site,” he says. “That really helps reduce noise in sensitive urban environments, and it’s a viable alternative to fossil fuels. But as for when we’ll see all-electric heavy trucks in the fleet – well that’s an interesting question!”

As our Teams session with Gough runs down (thanks to COVID-19 our normal face-to-face interviews are definitely out) we ask him if there’ve been any ‘unusual’ lifts lately. Gough simply replies: “You know what? Unusual jobs happen day-in and day-out throughout our network. Do we get to hear about all of them? Probably not, because it’s an everyday job to us! What might seem out of the ordinary to people on the outside – lifting statues, large structures, big pieces of steel – it doesn’t really matter what it is, we lift it. Without a shadow of a doubt, we’re the UK’s premier lifting-company in terms of size and capability.”

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