Ben - 9's Waterways

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Health and Safety Hang-ups

Canals are potentially dangerous places. Especially at locks. People drown in locks, boats sink in locks, people get injured by helicoptering windlasses at locks, and so on. This is something that all boaters are fully aware of. Well, you'd think so, wouldn't you?

When you've done a few locks it all starts getting easy, so you can while away the time as the lock is filling or emptying by chatting with people from other boats, photographing the delightful scenery, popping below to put the kettle on, or even wandering down to the next lock to open the paddles there, which might save a minute or two.

Of course, the problem with taking your eye off the ball is that you are not immediately aware if a dangerous situation presents itself and you are not in a position to take immediate action to prevent a serious incident.

Boats sink in locks usually because the stern has become caught on the cill as the lock empties or because the boat gets caught up on the bottom gates. Alert crews can act instantly if this starts to happen or, better still, make sure the situation doesn't happen in the first place!

Last week we heard the latest tale of a boat sinking in a lock. A hire boat from Wyvern Shipping Company sunk after becoming hung up on the cill of a lock at Buckby on the Grand Union Canal. There are several lock sinkings a year, mostly, but not always involving hire boats.

This does not mean that privately-owned boats don't get into dangerous situations, but more experienced boaters spot what is happening before it becomes catastrophic and know what to do to save the day, such as dropping all paddles to stabilise the situation so that they can then calmly decide the best way out of the problem.

One issue is the variable quality of the training given to new crews (no criticism aimed at Wyvern here) and how well crews listen to instructions when they are keen to get going. But, however good the training, there is no substitute for experience, which boat hirers often don't have the time to build up. Having said that, I'm sure we have all seen conscientious hire boat crews paying careful attention to everything they do, and then seen complacent boat owners seemingly oblivious to the risks they are taking.

There can't be many locks left that do not have warning notices attached to the balance beams of the top gates. It's a pity that the signs are confusing by asking you to keep the boat forward of the cill marker, leaving some ambiguity as to what it means, as forward could be taken to mean the way you are facing when you read the sign!

Have all these thousands of warning notices made any difference to the number of boats getting caught on cills? It doesn't seem like it. However, BW have covered their backs by putting the signs there, so that Compensation-For-Everything-Lawyers-Are-Us Ltd can't claim that BW have made no attempt to draw people's attention to the dangers when someone attempts to grab money from BW to compensate themselves for their own inattention.

I suppose we can look forward to further notices appearing on the bottom gates saying Keep Boat Away From Gate, and attached to each paddle saying Do Not Leave Windlass On Paddle, and painted on the lock edge saying Do Not Fall Into The Lock. No, sorry - that last one won't be necessary once all the locks have safety railings around them!

I don't know what the answer is. How do you stop people becoming complacent once they start to gain a bit of confidence? How can you convince happy holidaymakers that you can't fend off 20 tons of boat heading towards a wall with your hand or foot? How can you suggest that it is not a good idea to have children running around on the roof as the boat hurtles around a corner towards a low bridge? How can you convince people whose children are sitting on the bow with their legs dangling over the side that children don't make very good re-usable fenders?

Health and Safety: Not even the experts get it right every time.


Friday, 6 August 2010

Mugs Wanted?

I for one am not impressed by David Cameron's so-called "Big Society". The magic word seems to be "empowerment" which, roughly speaking, means the Government is going to stop doing lots of things that it has done for years and is going to let us volunteer to do them ourselves without payment.

If you think I am being cynical, take a look at what British Waterways is starting to do, as a step in this direction. They are advertising for volunteers to do what, in any normal universe, would be proper paid jobs. Waterscape's "Opportunities to Volunteer" page lists a number of such jobs.

Do you fancy driving the trip boat that goes up and down the Anderton Lift? You would be responsible for the safety of the 56 passengers, helping them on board and giving the commentary over the public announcement system. And all for nothing! You will need to be a qualified Boatmaster - BW is not offering to train you up or pay for the cost of becoming a Boatmaster.

Yes, I know that lots of people volunteer to drive steam trains on heritage railway lines, but do they do this full time? BW is only asking for one boatmaster, so presumably the successful sucker, er... applicant will be volunteering to work full time for nothing?

I know a lot of retired people who do volunary work. But there is a rota of volunteers so each one might take a turn once or twice a week, or even once or twice a month - not full time!

If you don't want the responsibility of being a Boatmaster, there are other voluntary jobs available.

You can be a café assistant at the Anderton Lift, where you would man the till, prepare and serve a range of food and drinks and ensure the cafe area and kitchen are kept clean and well presented at all times. They don't want much from you as a volunteer, do they? Anderton is also looking for a volunteer Deck Hand, Retail Assistant, Visitor Guide, Booking Office Assistant, Events Co-ordinator, Events Assistant, Grounds Maintenance person and Education person. Will there be any paid staff left at Anderton? Surely visitors pay to use the cafe, the shop and the trip boat, so why doesn't this generate enough income to pay the staff?

Not interested in Anderton? You could work in BW's Northwich office, where you would help things run smoothly and give customers a good standard of service. You would man the front desk and be the first point of contact for visitors so you'd need to have "good communication skills and a winning smile". You'd be "responsible for dealing with enquiries face-to-face and over the phone which will include boaters booking passages through locks and licensing enquiries. You will also help visitors sign in, manage the enquiries email inbox and undertake a range of administrative duties."

Is that all? And what salary are they offering for this post, which they have named "Customer Service Superstar"? Oh yes, I forgot - nowt! So what will the paid employees in the office do? Will there still be any paid employees?

You could be an "Archives Angel" and collect, preserve and make publicly available records relating to our inland waterways. You could be a "Bicentenary Events Coordinator" at Standedge Tunnel to plan and deliver a programme of vibrant events and activities to engage both locals and visitors from further afield.

You could be a "Waterways Volunteer Officer" and "work with a wide range of community groups and statutory organisations to aid delivery of the Waterway Destination Delivery Plan and help make Dewsbury's waterways a more vibrant and desirable place to be. On a day to day basis you will be responsible for developing and organising a wide range of volunteer and community engagement events and activities such as vegetation conservation work, habitat management and green space projects. You will get the opportunity to plan and deliver innovative community consultation and taster activities to encourage people visit their local canal to appreciate heritage, environment, health and well being factors." Phew! What will you do for the rest of the day?

All of the job descriptions sound like either full-time jobs or at least jobs that would occupy a large portion of each week, rather than the odd day or so a week that most volunteers like to put in. If someone has the necessary qualifications and qualities to do these jobs why would they offer their services for nothing rather than get themselves a job elsewhere? What is going to happen to BW's paid employees once (or if) these tasks get done by volunteers?

If BW really wants to save a shedload of money, perhaps they should stop paying so much money to its directors and advertise for volunteers to take on some of those positions.

I am all for volunteering, but the sort of things done by volunteers should be the extras that might otherwise get left out, rather than core roles. There are six pages of these volunteer posts on Waterscape. Okay, some of them perhaps fall into the category of "extras that might otherwise get left out" but some of the jobs listed are definitely ones that should be carried out by paid employees. Will BW attract volunteers to fill these posts? Only time will tell.

Is this the sort of thing we can look forward to under the "Big Society" where other cash-starved public services become desperate for volunteers to take over important jobs. Will we see vacancies for volunteer nurses, school dinner ladies, fire fighters and rat catchers?

Oh yes, I forget - there is also a vacancy for an "Editorial fact-checker" for the Waterscape site. Could it be that there are a few errors on the "Opportunities to Volunteer" page?