Industry is not just about figures, but about keeping workers safe and well
Up to two million people in the UK are in danger of irreversible injury caused by using heavy power tools, yet more than a decade after the introduction of legislation to prevent such damage, less than 5 per cent of those at risk are being monitored by anything more scientific than loose estimates of their exposure to the threat.
It’s a source of frustration for Jacqui McLaughlin, who for the past two years has headed up an Edinburgh-based company with one of the most advanced detection systems available. Far too many employers, she says, reply on staff to recall and accurately report which tools they have used – and for what duration – rather than pinpointing the information needed.
“All of that is at best vague, and is really just window-dressing the issue,” says Reactec’s chief executive. “If you don’t have the real data, you are doing things on the basis of guesswork.”
Hand-arm vibration syndrome, or HAVS, causes painful and disabling disorders of the blood vessels, nerves and joints. Also known as “white finger”, it can in extreme circumstances lead to permanent impairment that leaves sufferers unable to do simple tasks such as fastening buttons or picking up small items.
The latest iteration of Reactec’s monitoring system, HAVwear, is not only less expensive than its predecessor but has also made the leap to auditing the human impact, rather than simply gauging what the tool itself is doing. Users wear a wrist strap that measures vibration being absorbed by the body. This is a significant advance, as the intensity of tremors from the same tool varies depending on whether it is, for example, drilling into wood or masonry.
“We want to know what is happening with the person, not what’s going on with the tool,” McLaughlin says. “Users like that too, because previously many felt their employers were looking after the equipment, not their people.”
Spun out of the University of Edinburgh in 2001, Reactec traces its origins back to a group of boffins studying the physics of vibration, which is present in all matter. With EU legislation on the horizon and UK regulations certain to follow, they believed they could create a system to handle the task.
It’s been a matter of coming full circle for McLaughlin, who grew up in Glasgow with a passion to play hockey and an aptitude for maths and physics.
Though successful in the former to the degree of playing for many years for Scottish championship side Glasgow Western, she never quite managed her youthful ambition of being capped for Great Britain. Maths and physics, on the other hand, seemed a certain path into teaching until she attended a programme during her sixth year of school aimed at getting more women into the field of engineering.
She was the only woman in sight when she started her course in electrical and electronic engineering at Strathclyde University, and by the time she finished the programme the ratio of females has only edged up to four out of 100. Circumstances endured when she landed her first job with Edinburgh-based microwave technology specialist MESL in 1985.
“They had sent round a memo before I came to the business to say could they watch their language, because I was the first female engineer to join,” McLaughlin recalls. She was there for nine years before being head-hunted by a former boss to TRAK Microwave in Dundee, which was then owned by private investors from the US. Starting as a product line manager, she had various roles before landing the general manager’s post in the run-up to the sale of TRAK to London-based engineering conglomerate Smiths in 2004.
From there McLaughlin was soon put in charge of Smith’s global telecoms interests, which included UK operations such as TRAK plus businesses in the US, China and Australia. She spent three years in Shanghai before returning to the UK, and was based out of Edinburgh for a further four years, but was growing increasingly weary of working in a large corporate setting.
“Politics became more of a part of doing business than actually doing business,” she explains. “It is probably more the reason that I am in an SME now.”
After hitting peak revenues of £2.8m in 2012, sales at Reactec fell to £1.8m in 2014 as early adopters of the technology tailed off. Concerned investors led by the Archangels syndicate brought in a new management team headed by McLaughlin to revive the fortunes of the business, which is now targeting growth of 50 per cent on last year’s turnover of £2.3m.
“We are on budget for the first quarter, but since the launch of the newer version at the start of the year, sales of the older, higher-priced system have come to a complete halt,” McLaughlin says. “We are having to sell at three times the volume to reach out revenue targets, but so far things are on course.”
30 SECOND CV
Born: Glasgow, 1962.
Education: University of Strathclyde.
Ambition at school: To play hockey for Great Britain.
First job: Working in a fish and chip shop.
Can’t live without: Currently probably my dog, and like everyone else, my phone.
Kindle or book: Kindle.
Favourite city: Stockholm.
Preferred mode of transport: Probably walking.
What makes you angry: I do not take fools gladly. People being stupid annoys me.
What inspires you: Anything that gives me a sense of achievement.
Best thing about your job: I feel I can really make a difference with the business, and again that gives me a sense of achievement.