MIKE DONALDSON – A CAREER IN WATER JETTING (PART: 2)
To mark the 40th anniversary of the Water Jetting Association, we’re publishing a two-part feature about the career of one our founders, Mike Donaldson.
In Part 1, Mike talked about his early years in the UK’s fast-developing water jetting industry.
In Part 2, we hear about how two major issues – safety and road tax – lead to the establishment of the UK’s first water jetting association.
Let’s stick together – the pressure for collaboration
In 1979, the UK fell into line with the then EEC’s law requiring all goods vehicles weighing over 3.5t to be fitted with a tachograph. The measure was phased in by 1981. The legislation almost immediately put water jetting contractors at odds with police and Ministry of Transport (MoT) inspectors.
“The problem was, no one in authority could decide whether water jetting lorries were goods vehicles or not. It didn’t help that water jetting contractors installed their pumps in furniture vans. So, when they were stopped by police, they immediately expected to see a tachograph.”
There were financial implications too. Goods vehicles were taxed at a higher rate than those carrying engineering plant. Roadside tachograph disputes had become a regular hazard.
“Police and transport inspectors were carrying out intensive checks and water jetting vehicles were being stopped on a regular basis. Each time we had to explain we weren’t carrying goods. We were never taken to court, but it was a regular inconvenience and was wasting a lot of time.”
The impasse took on a Yes Minister quality when the DVLA suggested a way round the problem was to categorise water jetting pumps as digging machines, which exempted the trucks from needing tachographs.
“We didn’t understand how pumps could be classed as digging equipment. In our eyes, our lorries were carrying engineering plant, which didn’t need a tachograph. So, I arranged a meeting with the DVLA at Marsham St in London. The civil servant asked if we had any competitors. When I said yes, she said she couldn’t deal with individual companies, only trade bodies. That’s when I realised we’d have to set one up for water jetting.”
The first person Mike talked to about the need for an association was Bill Crompton, at Waterblast Ltd. Mike then arranged for a meeting to be held at the Excelsior Hotel, at Manchester Airport, on March 11th 1980, and invited the six biggest water jetting contractors in the UK to attend.
“Most of the businesses that attended were supportive of setting up an association, but not all. One contractor wanted to go it alone. They were happy with the deal done with the DVLA to categorise jetting pumps as digging equipment and didn’t see the need for an association.
“There was a strong spirit of independence in the water jetting industry at the time. Individuals thought they knew best and didn’t want to conform to group decisions. But they came around in the end.”
Enter the HSE – the case for a Code of Practice
While disputes over tachographs and road tax were rumbling on, in 1979 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) voiced concerns that made the case for an industry-wide water jetting body more urgent still.
“The water jetting industry was still in its infancy. There had been some accidents and the HSE couldn’t see that there were any organised ways to try to reduce them, so it decided it had to do something. It contacted the British Hydraulic Research Association (BHRA) at Cranfield College to start the ball rolling.
“An informal meeting was held with the HSE, BHRA and a handful of water jetting contractors at Cranfield in early 1979, where the need for a code of practice for water jetting was discussed.”
A letter from Martin Fisher, Assistant Director of Research at the BHRA, to Mike on 30th April 1979 explained the HSE’s position on creating a code of practice:
Mr Williams of the HSE pointed out there were two alternative approaches to the problem. There could be either a formal HSE document or and industry-based type. The consensus of opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of an industry-based approach.
However, for this to be produced it is necessary for representatives of all interested parties to get together to produce such a document. There is no trade association for contractors which could readily formulate a representative opinion. Therefore, at the meeting we offered to provide a neutral forum for the first meeting of any contractors who are interested to determine a common policy.
The BHRA arranged a follow-up meeting at Sheffield University for water jetting contractors to discuss the Code of Practice. This time, all key contractors were invited.
“Most contractors were for the idea but not all of them wanted to get involved. They believed they had their own processes that were good enough and they didn’t want to share their expertise and knowledge with others. But gradually everyone came around to see the benefits of working together.”
Contractors held further informal meetings over several months. Finally, the inaugural meeting of the Association of High-Pressure Water Jetting Contractors (AHPWJC) was held on 9th October 1980 at the Metropole Hotel at Birmingham Airport.
“On the date of our first meeting, we had 21 members. We agreed to have a management council and four specialist committees which were commercial, offshore, safety, and technical. We’d already had some discussions about a code of practice and water jetting training. But it was very much just the start. We had a lot to do.”
The AHPWJC – the early years
The inaugural meeting was organised by the association’s secretary, Maurice Anthony, who worked for the Ship Builders and Repairers Association (SBRA), whose London offices became the AHPWJC’s first HQ.
“Maurice played a huge part in the association’s early success. I asked different organisations if they would provide a secretariat for the association and it was the SBRA that agreed.
“Without Maurice’s organisational skills, we wouldn’t have got off the ground. Controlling water jetting contractors at the time was like herding cats and he proved he knew how to do it.”
Mike was the inaugural president and would hold that office for the first five years. In a retirement letter, his secretary joked how her “heart used to sink” after each association meeting, thinking of the additional workload he had taken on.
“Despite the association’s name, manufacturers were involved as members from day one. The name was only changed to the Water Jetting Association later to reflect what was already happening.
“It was a big plus to involve manufacturers in the technical committee because they could see and hear how we were using their equipment. Different contractors were using the same equipment in different ways and for different purposes. Hoses were often the weak link in the chain. It gave an opportunity for frank discussions and rapid learning to prevent problems in the future.”
Controlling casual labour
A key issue identified by the HSE was the use, by water jetting contractors, of casual labour. In some cases, says Mike, it made up 50% of the workforce.
“It used to get quite heated at council meetings to get agreement with a safety or technical issue, which was good because it got discussed and sorted. The most difficulty was caused by employment issues, and specifically the use of casual labour.
“Using casual labour undermined training and the setting of standards. People didn’t realise they were holding a potentially deadly weapon. As an association, we wanted to tackle the problem. Setting standards would improve our reputation as an industrial service and the use of casual labour was holding that back. As an association, we had to make members knuckle down.
“Within two to three years, we got things turned around and the HSE was satisfied that most water jetting companies were using fulltime employees. The problem is still going on today, however. They call it zero hours contracts.
“The problem always has been that we don’t get 100% continuity of service. But SLD never laid people off. There was always something to do in the yard. Once we got jetting operatives trained up, we wanted to keep them. It helped that the industry was maturing, and workflow was becoming more consistent.”
The WJA is now the UK’s leading provider of water jetting training. The system in place now has evolved significantly over the last 40 years.
“We realised early on that it would be a good source of income. But it was also important just to establish formal training programmes for water jetting to support standards. Our early members shared a lot of their expertise.
“We set up a training centre at the BHRA. Members provided equipment and senior people from member companies acted as the first instructors. We also arrange discussion meetings, through the BHRA, around the country. It was an important way to share our expertise, build our reputation and get new members in the early years.”
Developing the Code of Practice
As required by the HSE, an important initial task was the creation of a water jetting code of practice. It was a process that would take many months.
“The Code of Practice was created from a series of structured discussions at council meetings and association committees. Maurice Anthony used to take notes at council meetings and then circulate them for further comment and amendment.
“Over a period of months, the code emerged from this process. We first created a ‘Red Booklet’ which was continuously added to and modified. This was then formally revised every 12 months and went through three or four revisions.
“The Red Booklet then became the Blue Book. We then later added the Red Book water jetting for drainage contractors. The Code of Practice did what it we wanted it to. It was taken up by the industry we worked in. For the first time there was a standard to work to. It was a big achievement.”
Setting professional standards
Establishing the association has proved very beneficial for members and their customers, says Mike.
“We set out to make water jetting a professional trade and we achieved that. We did a lot in a short period of time. We may have been at each other’s throats to get the work. But when it came to the association, we worked together in a common cause.
“The association has become a place for resolving differences and encouraging improvement and innovation. If we hadn’t set up the association, the business would’ve continued to come in, but we would have had less control, which wouldn’t be good for us or for the water jetting industry and its customers.”
In 1990, Hansen Trust carried out a reorganisation of its businesses and sold its contracting and contractor’s plant companies. It sold SLD Pressure Jetting to Caird Industrial Services, with Mike becoming MD of the new pressure jetting division. He was then forced into early retirement by a recurring back problem in 1996.
Picture captions, from the top:
- Mike Donaldson, inaugural President of the Association of High Pressure Water Jetting Contractors.
- Inauguration notice of the new Association of High Pressure Water Jetting Contractors.
- Article in Croner about the legal dispute relating to the designation of water jetting vehicles as goods vehicles for tax purposes.
- Original artwork for the Association of High Pressure Water Jetting Contractors’ first logo.
- Newspaper article reporting on the winner of a competition to create the Association of High Pressure Water Jetting Contractors’ new logo.
- Mike Donaldson shows off a commemorative award presented to him by the Association of High Pressure Water Jetting Contractors in 1984.