Interview: The safety evangelist
By Christian Shelton04 February 2019
One of the main reasons for asking Marco van Daal to write a series of articles on safety for ICST magazine was his clear commitment, right from the outset, to the value of learning how to do something properly. Five-and-a-half years later, having written 65 articles published as The Knowledge, helps confirm that dedication.
Every month van Daal found time to write another instalment in the series, in between his regular work training, conducting seminars and delivering presentations on how to safely execute lifting, rigging and transport project, covering all likely (and some less so) types of equipment and methods. His primary aim is to help give everyone involved on site the best tools and greatest chance of safely heading for home at the end of every day.
What made you become a ‘safety evangelist’?
I have never been called this but it has a nice ring to it. I have always had a thirst for knowing how things work. As a kid I used to take things apart just to see what was inside. Vacuum cleaners, VCRs, TVs, radios – basically anything I could get my hands on, much to the dismay of my parents. Once I figured out how it worked I wanted to tell them about it. But they were only interested to know why I had eight screws left over that used to be part of the vacuum cleaner.
When I joined Mammoet back in 1993, fresh out of university and green as grass, I met engineers and operations guys who enjoyed explaining how things worked. Soon I found myself in a situation where I realised that the more I knew, the more there was that I didn’t know. That kept me going and drove me to ask more questions.
To make it easy on myself (I have been told that engineers like myself are naturally lazy and I cannot completely disagree with that) I broke things down into ‘basic building blocks‘ I knew I could remember. Without realising it when I started doing them, this is still how I conduct my seminars. I try and present a seemingly complex matter in a very simple and easy to understand way. Laws of Newton, buoyancy, trigonometry, transport and crane stability, gravity, tides and much more are explained in such a way that everybody (no exception) understands the principles.
I live by a statement once made by Albert Einstein, see Figure 1.
At some point in time the roles slowly reversed and I became the one answering questions and explaining the working and principles. I didn’t even realise this was happening, it was pointed out to me by a colleague. I noticed a strange thing taking place in our industry. Asking questions was often a taboo because it was thought and taught that we are supposed to know everything that happens on our projects and why. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case and it has led to unsafe situations, near misses and some seriously horrific accidents.
Before long I started to like the explaining and talking to colleagues, clients, engineers, sales people and anybody who had a question. One thing led to another and now 25 years after my first encounter with heavy equipment I make a decent living giving seminars, training and speeches around the world. This is actually quite funny because I have always been afraid of speaking in front of large groups of people.
What are the top five things that need to be done to reduce the frequency of accidents in our industry?
In my mind there are only two things: communication and training. I could go as far as saying that only training is required, as communication is part of training but, since communication (or lack thereof) is such a large contributing factor to accidents, I often list it as a separate item. Training includes: understanding the concepts (before you actually get your hands on the equipment); communication (agree on who gives the instructions and how and who follows them); hands-on training (to learn the functions of the equipment); follow-up training (to stay up-to-date with new developments and new versions of the equipment); and, eventually, the training of performing the job (this also gets you the experience that prepares you for even bigger and more complex projects).
For reasons that I have not been able to figure out, training is not a line item in the budget of many heavy lift and transport companies. Maybe this is because it is seen as a cost rather than as an investment.
It is strange to me that human resource personnel and accounting personnel (to name but two professions) often attend training even though they have been educated for years in school to perform that profession. Heavy transport and lifting personnel rarely attend training even though there is no formal education and most knowledge is passed on verbally within the company. See Figure 2.
How far can we realistically reduce the number of accidents?
Ideally we want zero accidents. Realistically we have to acknowledge that this is not possible. We are working with humans and humans make mistakes. It’s as simple as that. According to my research, 80 per cent of all accidents or incidents are caused by some sort of error in communication and 15 % by lack of proper training (not being communication training). See Figure 3.
I believe that with some basic training we can reduce the number of accidents by 50 % easily. The rest will be a bit harder to tackle as we see more and more that heavy lift and transport projects are more price driven than safety or quality driven. This is a bigger problem in developing countries than it is in developed countries.
I’d like to draw an analogy with the airline industry in the USA. All airlines combined in US airspace amount to 15 million flights a year, carrying almost a billion passengers. One in 1.4 million flights suffers a serious incident. This doesn’t mean that an aircraft crashes but it makes an emergency landing for a wide range of reasons. One in 1.4 million flights. It means that theoretically you could board an aircraft every day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year for 3,835 years without experiencing an incident.
Our industry has a long way to go.
What is the worst example of a bad practice that resulted in an accident?
The one that comes to mind straightaway is the bridge replacement at Alphen aan den Rijn in the Netherlands. This accident in 2015 was completely avoidable. It was caused by a total breakdown in communication at every level and lack of respect for the laws of nature. To position two hydraulic cranes of different capacities on two barges of different sizes performing a tandem lift close to the crane’s maximum capacity and then plan to tow the two barges with the load suspended while having no ballast plan or pumps on board is putting equipment, property and human life at risk and that is… well… inexcusable. See Figure 4.
What do you have as an example of finding out at a late stage that something is not going to work?
This is a bit more difficult because we don’t get to see these examples. They are caught just in time and (hopefully) suspended and fixed to avoid an accident. I can draw from my own experience while being the project manager on a triple load-out project.
The last of the structures was being loaded on SPMT [self propelled modular transporter] while the barge was prepared. Our client arranged the barge. They had submitted all barge data to us in order to prepare the ballast plan and determine the travel path of the SPMT. An important detail
to mention is that we never saw a side view of the barge. A plan view and the ballast tank layout was all we ever saw. When the barge arrived it turned out to be a launch barge with a slanted stern where the rocker beams are normally installed. Basically, we ran out of real estate to drive on. Within 24 hours a structure was designed and installed to allow the last load-out to still take place. See Figure 5.
What is the secret to making the messages, methods and information from training courses actually sink in?
As I said earlier, it is unfortunately still not common in our industry to send heavy lift and transport personnel for training. Slowly, however, it is changing for the better. A few driving forces are behind this development. Clients are asking more critical questions now than they did once upon a time. Large EPC contractors are getting more critical in their sub-contractor selection. Insurance company people attend heavy lift and transport training so they better understand their exposure.
Last but not least, unfortunately, almost 50 % of my clientele has just suffered an accident or near miss and they realise that they don’t know as much as they thought they did. It is not easy to admit to oneself that external training is needed. It takes an open mind and a fair degree of self-criticism. The training is important as it takes away doubts.
Imagine you have been doing this work for 10 or 15 or even 20 years and suddenly it goes wrong for reasons that you do not understand. Without a decent explanation, the personnel involved become insecure as they don’t know if this is going to happen again. Nothing is more dangerous on a job than personnel who are unsure if their set-up is going to work, and they don’t have the knowledge to justify things either way.
Most in-house training that I conduct start a bit hesitantly with few attendees wanting to say too much. Once the ice is broken, however, and they see from the pictures and videos that they are not the only ones to make mistakes, it quickly becomes a vibrant two or three days. I often hear remarks like “I always wondered how that worked” or “we have been in a similar situation not too long ago” or
“I never understood the centre of gravity; now I do”.
The feedback most valuable to me personally came from a seasoned industry expert. I once was told by a ‘front runner’ of our industry, “I still don’t know how to pronounce trigonometry but as of today I know how to calculate an angle.” See Figure 6, class in session.
In your opinion, what country or upbringing produces the best crane and transport people?
Historically, looking at the last 100 or more years, the Dutch have been well established in this industry. Not only on land but at sea as well. I like to believe that our history as traders and our continuous fight against water – a quarter of our nation is below sea level – has played a major role in this.
Nowadays I think there are more and better opportunities for countries and companies with access to education and knowledge, i.e. schooling or seminars or training. These are the basic building blocks of any successful company.
One thing I realised very quickly is having a degree (even graduating cum laude) gives you a bit of an edge over those who don’t, but not for very long. Out in the field we are all equal. We are all guys working with and around big and heavy stuff that demands respect.
For continued success and growth, employees have to like what they are doing. It is the task of management to create this kind of environment. Workers have to be open-minded. Others may have a better solution. Also important is a willingness to try a new approach and, with that, accept the fact that you may have to start over again.
In today’s fast-paced environment and instant-gratification society, it may come as a bit of a surprise to some that it takes time to become successful. Regardless of education, you will likely have to start at the bottom and work your way up to become experienced and, even more important, to become trusted by others.
With my seminars and books I help companies and individuals to obtain that knowledge and become more successful and trusted. But be aware – knowledge is not yours to keep; it is yours to share.
About the author
Marco van Daal has been in the heavy lift and transport industry since 1993. He started at Mammoet and later with Fagioli from Italy, both leading companies in the industry.
His 20-year-plus experience extends to five continents and more than 55 countries.
His book The Art of Heavy Transport, is available at: www.khl-infostore.com/books.
Van Daal has a passion for sharing knowledge and holds training seminars around the world.