Making sure resources move efficiently between the point of origin and the point of installation can be the difference between success and failure. Steve Menary asks how important is logistics on a construction site?

“On a large scheme, with a big drywall package, logistics is the key factor to making a profit,” says Steve Halcrow, the technical director at the Federation of Plastering & Drywall Contractors (FPDC).

“You might need 16 blokes just for an hour to unload a truck, but then you’ve got to get the materials around the site. Sometimes that can take eight hours just to get drywall to the workface.

“If it’s a big 10 storey apartment block, walking up stairs with your tools isn’t practical. On some jobs I’ve visited, I’ve known tradesmen wait an hour and a half just to get to the workface. That’s why you need to think about this in advance.”

From unloading and moving large packs of plasterboard, booking hoists and the interface with other trades, logistics is clearly central to a major construction project. Graham Lee is the technical manager at Bowmer & Kirkland.

From a main contractor’s point of view, waste is the main logistical problem generated by plastering and drywall packages.

“We either provide separate skips for plasterboard waste or when space is not available by agreement with the waste management company, for them to separate waste at the transfer station,” says Mr Lee. “The main problem is often in city centre sites there is insufficient space for a separate skip for plasterboard and only space for one skip”.

“Unfortunately when we do have separate skips these can be abused and contaminated by other trades putting in packaging materials in the plasterboard skips, despite prominent signage. The management of these skips is therefore difficult.”

The logistical problems caused by waste can be reduced by a manned chipper but this can be costly for specialist contractors. Angela Mansell, operations director at Mansell Finishes, says: “You could get a chipper and a skip in for waste and that might save £75,000 on a main contractor’s waste bill, but might have cost the specialist contractor £20,000. No-one thinks about that, it’s a subbie’s problem but we don’t control the site.

“We’ve all had to look at costs during the recession and ultimately, we are asking less and less people to do more and more and that’s a bit worrying when it comes to safety.”

Health & Safety Executive (HSE) research on site injuries and fatalities does not break out information for operatives working on plastering and drywall packages. However, harm caused by handling generally, such as moving plasterboard around sites, leads to more workers going sick than any other type of injury.

In 2013, HSE data shows that 28 per cent of injuries that lead to a week or more off work for the injured operates were produced by handling. Slips and trips were next at 23 per cent followed by falls at 12 per cent and slips/trips at 10 per cent.

Many specialist contractors would prefer manufacturers to produce the smaller board of around 30 kilogramme that is available in Scandinavia rather than the 40 kilo board more prevalent in the UK. But that would involve wholesale changes to production methods by materials companies.

A solution to shifting bulky plasterboard around sites and helping reduce handling injuries was introduced to the UK from Scandinavia in 2005, when Stark Arvid began operating here. The group offers products from chippers to site boxes and lift trucks, which are typically used on larger projects such as schools, hospitals and offices, where board has to go longer distances.

Paul Preston, Stark Arvid’s technical sales manager in the UK, says: “Unless you are manhandling boards, then the size shouldn’t make a lot of difference. On the ideal site, everything would be moved on board trolleys and ceiling lifters and there would be no manual handling.

“The kit we sell in the UK is labour saving and about minimising labour. And if all the bits of kit we sell were used on site, there would be no
manual handling.”

Take up was initially slow when Stark Arvid started out in the UK and Mr Preston does acknowledge that sites in the group’s native Sweden do operate differently with more direct labour. That places the onus there on main contractors.

In the UK, risk and cost is typically passed down the supply chain and Stark Arvid sells predominantly to specialist contractors.

Mr Preston admits: “The subcontractors don’t get any more from using our equipment but it gives them something extra when tenders are put in, as they are slightly above the rest. Main contractors are keen on these things. Right now, in my opinion, main contractors seem to be more keen on manual handling than green issues.

“The main contractors all have responsibilities that they do take seriously. With main contractors, there is always a cost element but it’s not a major issue.”

Some specialist contractors would dispute that and Steve Halcrow argues that the problems thrown up by logistics from managing deliveries to reducing injuries is the main catalyst behind the push towards greater prefabrication.

He concludes: “This is one of the drivers that is taking us down the prefab route, as there are less people on site, so less accidents and fewer of these issues.”