After 21 years repairing roads, Mick has had enough of dragging heavy jackhammers from the backs of trucks, lugging them to a potholed patch of road and then breaking up iron-hard asphalt for hours on end. “I’m lucky I don’t have white finger by now,” he tells me. He’s referring to Raynaud’s disease, a localised restriction in blood flow caused by, among other things, vibration such as that generated by a jackhammer.
When this is the cause, it’s known as hand-arm vibration syndrome. It can develop within just six months of doing this job and there’s no cure. It’s one of the biggest issues facing the Health and Safety Executive, the body charged with policing safety at work, with contractors routinely paying out large sums of compensation to affected workers.
Mick invites me to try out the jackhammer he has been using. It’s a traditional-looking thing with a two-stroke motor perched on top. This makes it top-heavy and, I suspect, even more of a chore to use. Anyway, I give it a go, if only for the amusement of Mick and his colleagues in the road gang. Positioning it accurately is the hard bit, accomplished by lifting it slightly and manoeuvring it with my leg. After a minute or so, I’ve only succeeded in drilling too wide and deep a hole, which the guys will have to patch. And my fingers are tingling.
Mick takes the hammer and shows me how it should be done. However, there’s a twist to his demonstration, since he’s actually competing to drill the road with a mechanised jackhammer wielded by one of the newest weapons in the war against potholes: the JCB Pothole Pro.
Naturally, the Pothole Pro wins, its 600mm-wide cutting head (or cropping tool) neatly and effortlessly slicing through the road in moments to a consistent, predetermined depth. Still, a runner-up prize goes to Mick, who puts on a good show – although I would like to see what he’s like after a couple of hours of jackhammering…
From a distance, the new machine could be confused with one of JCB’s traditional wheeled backhoe loaders – except that in place of a large shovel and bucket, it has, on one side of the cab, what looks like a huge shoe brush mounted on the tip of an extending arm; and on the other side, a large metal box incorporating vicious-looking metal teeth on a spinning drum, called the planer.