When it comes to vertical access there are two obvious options: Scaffolding or mast climbers.
Traditionally speaking, scaffolding and construction go hand in hand with many trades only ever using this form of access. However, additional methods need to be explored as costs become ever more important.
Mast climbers are suited to 85% of construction projects, but their use is far from widespread and often completely passed by some trades, brickwork included.
There are businesses taking advantage of them, however.
This month we caught up with CARA Brickwork’s Contracts Director Neil Allen to discuss mast climbers in more detail and how they have become a regular form of vertical access on brickwork projects in the North of England.
Using Mast Climbers For The First Time
It’s very easy to consider mast climbers as a ‘new’ and a modern form of vertical access, but the first time Neil and his colleagues came across one was around 10 years on a Morgan Sindall construction project.
“No one had used them previously, and brickwork wasn’t renowned for them,” Neil said.
“The lads had never used them before and when they arrived there, they thought it’s just a big scissor lift that’ll be slow to load and won’t take much weight”.
Despite these initial trepidations, it didn’t take long for Neil and his team of brickworkers to become convinced that mast climbers were a valid option for their trade.
“Within a day or so of loading working on them the brickies realised how fast they were completing their work, they were soon saying, ‘they only want to use these now’. The general thought was that it was much easier to use than scaffolding and they weren’t banging their head all the time on ‘hop ups’ and working around scaffold ties”.
Mast Climber Or Scaffolding?
It seems like the best way to grow familiar with a mast climber and to fully understand how exactly it benefits your trade and the wider project as a whole is by getting first-hand experience. Over time and the more frequently you use it, those benefits become more apparent.
Consider loading, for instance, when it comes to scaffolding there’s limited space and limited places to load. The higher you go up, the more apparatus you need. Whether it’s forklifts, cranes, hoists or telehandlers this equipment is expensive and can end up costing upwards of £1000/week.
Less precision handling equipment is needed with a mast climber as you are constantly loading when the work platform is at the bottom of the mast.
“We use a buggyscopic telehandler which is only around £150/week. Then we make sure the workload is organised so when brickys come down, the pre-loaders are ready to load the next lot of bricks and mortar.
“I’m also 6’2” so when I’ve got a hard hat on and walking around scaffolding, I’m constantly hitting my head on 2m lifts. I’ve got a sore neck by the end of the day!”
It’s never a binary choice though and scaffolding is an equally valid choice. At the end of the day, it boils down to the size and scope of the construction project and the logistics surrounding it. Neil mentions that he’d always recommend mast climbers for any project over 4 storeys and that on these projects he’d “only want to use [them]”.
When mast climbers are used Neil and the team at CARA Brickwork note that everything seems to run quicker and that mast climbers can be erected and taken down “inside a couple of days”. He goes on to say that he’s heard of ‘horror stories' of scaffolding taking months to strip due to infill required on the way down.
“You’re often waiting on the scaffolders to come back [on projects using scaffolding] and adapt hop-ups or build the next section. It stops you doing your job and you lose valuable time from your guys. We know mast climbers work out cheaper so why use anything else on these projects?
Hazards of Working At Height
Construction sites are full of hazards. Every project does everything it can to ensure it is a safe place for trades to work, but there are always going to be incidents. In its 2021 report, the NASC highlights that there were 81 reported incidents on scaffolding, a slight increase on the previous year, with Neil no stranger to the hazards of working at height.
Despite suffering no serious injuries, Neil fell some 15m earlier in his career, and was always aware of the dangers that scaffolding can pose.
“There are lots of things to keep an eye on, either cross braces, loose boards, or missing components. On top of that, a lot of guys really don’t like having to climb up 10 sets of ladders to get to where they’re working.
“I can honestly say that I or any of my lads have never been hurt while working on a mast climber and you feel a lot more closed in and safe.”
Changing The Mast Climber Mindset
With safety and cost savings apparent, it would seem obvious that all projects would be opting for mast climbers, but it’s still not the case.
In fact, there’s a huge North/South divide in the United Kingdom. The North and in particular cities like Liverpool and Manchester are using far more mast climbers when compared with the likes of London.
“I’d say around 80% of our jobs are using mast climbers. But when we speak to lads down in London or in the Midlands, they don’t really know much about them and aren’t interested in using them.
“It’s about changing that mindset”
As Neil and his team experienced on first use, initially you think a mast climber is little more than a glorified scissor lift, but it’s far from that.
“Brickys are lazy,” Neil jokes.
“They want to do their job at the optimum height without having to have ‘nose bleeds’ or walk too far to get their bricks and mortar. With a mast climber, they’re not stretching as high (due to working at the waist height) and their materials are loaded right to the workforce, they also feel safe and enclosed.”
Based on Neil and CARA Brickwork’s experience, it takes little more than a day of using a mast climber to become an advocate. There are less ties back to the building, no trip hazards and can be loaded far quicker helping save project time.
Changing that mindset is so important. It’s about stepping out of that comfort zone and not using something you have done previously.
Neil sums it up best.
“We are one of the biggest bricklaying contractors in the North, we work on some of the biggest jobs so if we’re happy to use them other companies should too”
So, what is stopping you? You’ve seen how little it takes to convince certain trades and how big an impact it can have on not just your business but your workers, too. All that you need to do now is work out how much you can save.