There is plenty for Steve Couling to sink his teeth into as the new president of IPAF. He explains all to Euan Youdale.
Steve Couling began his two year stint as president of the International Powered Access Federation (IPAF) in March this year. He officially took over the reins from Wayne Lawson during the federation’s Annual General Meeting, held at the IPAF Summit, in Miami, US.
He joined Versalift UK, Time manufacturing’s UK and Ireland business, as managing director eight-and-a-half years ago, but it was during his fledgling years in the access industry that he was attracted to IPAF and what it could offer.
Talking to AI at Versalift UK’s headquarters in Kettering, Mr Couling remembers how it was the networking opportunities that first got him interested in the Federation. “It was some 20 years ago and I was in a new marketplace; IPAF was an ideal way to network because all the principles of all the major rental companies are there. But over the years I got more involved with campaigns and events and now I have been an active member of the council on-and-off for the last 18 years and on the board of directors for the last six years.”
In those six years on the front-line Mr Couling has seen some dramatic changes at the Federation. “IPAF has become a far more international body, and it is apparent there are regional differences, different applications and different legislation, but it is one industry, and it presents itself with the same problems globally.”
During his inauguration as president Mr Couling said IPAF had experienced some growing pains. Expanding on that theme, he adds, “When you are knocking on the door of new regions, it can take some time to happen and when it does you can find you lack the necessary resources. Sometimes the growing pains come from trying to provide the necessary support in those places. Others are growing pains in terms of languages and satisfying those needs with written materials.”
One of IPAF’s latest international ventures, the eLearning module, seems to be experiencing few growing pains, although its adoption followed a period of uncertainty for IPAF in the US.
The eLearning module was introduced to the US earlier this year with the help of North American rental giant NES Rentals. The trial run saw nearly all of the company’s 1050 staff receiving a PAL Card, and has set the scheme up for continued success. The eLearning module allows operators to take the theoretical part of the PAL Card training course online, but they must still pass a supervised theory and practical test at a recognised centre.
“As far as training in the US is concerned, everyone is online; that is the way they like to learn and a lot of the credit has to go to Andy Studdert, NES Rentals CEO, who has helped to develop the cause. “It’s a concept that can be developed across many parts of the world, particularly with language and geographical challenges. But we are in the early stages and we need to drive it now because I think it’s something that’s going to explode over the coming years.”
At the IPAF Summit Mr Studdert pointed out that attempts to duplicate the training centre model in the US had proved less fruitful than in other markets like the UK, due to its much smaller land area. Mr Couling explains: “It works very well in the UK and we have numerous centres - you haven’t got to go very far to visit one, but it’s a little bit different if you are in Midwest USA where the distances are greater.”
During the Summit Mr Studdert set North America the challenge of reaching 30,000 PAL Cards by March 2014. “I think it’s a fantastic objective,” comments Mr Couling, “and I believe in setting objectives high; if we don’t quite achieve it but we come somewhere close that will still be a fantastic achievement - I know there is a lot of hard work in trying to make it happen.”
This was the first time the Summit had been held in the US, and the overwhelming response from delegates was that it was a great success. “I was a little bit nervous about bringing the event to the US, out of what is comfortable territory in the UK and Europe, but we had a huge turnout of USA member’s and everybody seemed to take the information on board.”
Many in North America will know IPAF by its US training wing American Work Platform Training (AWPT). In recent months, however, it has become the subject of a rethink, and as Mr Couling explains, it may be on the verge of revision.
“When we first started AWPT it was because we thought people in the US would not recognise IPAF. But I think that’s changed, and it’s certainly changed since the Summit. So, I think the sooner we can change AWPT to the more general IPAF USA, or another similar name, the better. With hindsight, which is always a great thing, AWPT wasn’t the right strategy, but part of being clever is to recognise that. I think the change will happen relatively quickly, it is certainly high on our agenda.”
While this potential change is under discussion at IPAF, the Federation has made it clear that no decision had yet been made on the subject. The rest of the world also offers great opportunity for expansion, but as Mr Couling says, the way to success is to tread carefully. “I think, for example, we are looking at the same sort of challenges in South America; a huge landmass with people very keen on eLearning. It’s a huge economy that’s growing very rapidly and its perfect timing for IPAF to introduce safe working practices there.
“You have to be careful though. Yes, of course, we want to grow, get new members, open training centres, but IPAF is a not-for-profit organisation. I remember when we first moved into the US, people saw IPAF as a threat to the training programmes they were trying to promote. But there is no reason for anyone to see IPAF as a threat; and I think the reason they saw it that way was because they thought we were trying to make a profit. It’s incredibly important for us to stress that to all the markets we are active in - the motives of IPAF are pure; it exists to try and make the access industry safer.”
Apart from spreading eLearning internationally, Steve Couling has laid out two other specific goals for his presidency.
One of them is to promote more Country Councils, which are formed by IPAF members to promote unique causes in their countries. Brazil, for example, already has one, but there are many opportunities for more in the likes of Eastern Europe and Turkey, says Mr Couling.
“I have come to realise that as we have spread into new territories, they all have their regional queries, legislation, health and safety issues, and I believe the right thing to do is to have a forum so that they can discuss things between them, and lobby for legislation in their local regions.
“For example, we have a very strong Country Council in Italy, which has been absolutely essential when it comes to their economy. It’s really important that those guys have stuck together and found a way through it.
Looking East towards Asia, Mr Couling continues, “I can see the time will come for a regional council, an Asian council, but I think what’s necessary initially is to get some strong membership and you evolve from there, particularly as rental becomes stronger. The whole concept of access comes from people understanding that it’s available and then people providing that through rental.”
The third topic on Mr Couling’s hit list, and one very close to his heart, is increased training for vehicle mounted platform operators. Mr Couling believes this specialist area throws up some unique hazards which should be addressed separately.
“It can be a little bit more complex to understand them technically and some of the applications are unique to that equipment. That side of things can be so specialist that it just requires some specialist training.
“If you are operating self-propelled equipment on a construction site, most responsible sites these days have health and safety policies, there are people marshalling that on site, whereas vehicle mounts are operating in the public highways where you haven’t got that level of scrutiny really, and to a degree you are relying on the operator following procedures – human nature is that people cut corners sometimes to do the job quickly.
“So I am looking at training for working on highways and understanding special needs of that particular application and how they should be managed. Perhaps we could look at a specialist training module for those particular applications.”
The goal, says Mr Couling, is a legal requirement for anyone operating access equipment in the UK to have a recognised training qualification, preferably a PAL Card. From there, the ultimate dream is to see that spread worldwide.
“It might take three years, it might take five years, but if you can’t hold up an IPAF card then I believe that you should not be using access equipment, and I think that should be one of our major objectives.”