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Making the Switch

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It is an undisputed and well-known fact that workers’ use of manual tools increases repetitive movement, introduces awkward working postures and elevates the risk of ergonomic injuries and illnesses. Throughout the past decade, the utility industry has done a great job of recognizing these ergonomic safety issues, and a number of utility tool manufacturers have responded by developing new battery-operated tools and tool features that address them. Slowly but surely, ergonomic safety is increasing in the workplace as investor-owned utilities, contractors, cooperatives and municipalities make the switch from manual to battery-operated tools.

However, even with the progress that’s been made, there are many workers who are still using manual cutting and crimping methods on job sites across the country, which means those individuals face a greater likelihood of carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, sciatica, sprains, strains, soft tissue damage and other injuries.

According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, among upper body injuries involving the repetitive use of tools, approximately 61 percent involve injury to the hands and wrists, 20 percent involve injury to the shoulders, 10 percent involve injury to the arms and 9 percent involve injury to the trunk and back. Signs of these of musculoskeletal disorders include decreased range of motion, decreased grip strength, swelling, cramping and loss of function. Other symptoms of these injuries include numbness, pain, tingling and stiffness.

Understanding the health and ergonomic benefits that battery-operated tools offer their employees, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. recently made a historic transition requiring all crews to turn in their manual cutters and crimpers and switch to battery-operated tools. Making the switch has resulted in a variety of benefits to the company’s workers, including helping to eliminate many upper body injuries, substantially reducing the high forces of muscle exertion on the shoulder adductor and abductor muscles, decreasing the peak forces of the flexor muscles in the forearm and improving twisted postures and awkward trunk positions. Overall, Pacific Gas and Electric has seen a significant reduction in the number of injuries related to the use of tools, thus improving the health and ergonomic safety of their employees.

Choosing the Right Tool for You
For those utilities that have already begun to make the move from manual to battery-operated tools, determining the ergonomic differences between two brands of similarly performing tools can be a complex task. Evaluating ergonomic benefits with the intention of uncovering the safest, most efficient tool for a job can be accomplished through an ergonomic comparison analysis. When conducting an analysis, the following should be considered:

Muscle Effort
Using electromyography data, it is possible to measure the muscle effort used to perform a task. With this data you can compare multiple tools to discover which ones use the least and most muscle effort to perform a job. Before making a purchase, check with the manufacturer to see if they can provide electromyography data for their tools.

Tool Weight
Although weight alone does not designate a tool as ergonomic, it is a leading indicator of the overall ergonomic impact on a user. Tools with reduced weight will decrease total muscle effort and reduce risk of ergonomic injuries.

Grip Size
Smaller handle sizes will accommodate users’ various hand sizes. Smaller handle diameter is a considerable advantage when comparing comfort benefits of the grip size.

Trigger Design
Inline trigger designs – those in which the orbital reserve, motor, circuit board and controls are in line with each other – will improve grip biomechanics compared to pistol-style trigger designs. Also keep in mind that a poor trigger design combined with a larger handle size will lessen the ergonomic benefits of a tool and result in the need for increased muscle effort to operate it.

Working Postures
Tools that require fewer static postures to complete tasks demonstrate improved ergonomics. Additionally, when workers perform jobs that inherently require awkward postures, such as working overhead or down low, they can benefit from using tools with adjustable heads. These heads provide users with ergonomic options for holding and supporting a tool during task completion.

Maneuverability and Adjustability
The ability to rotate a tool head provides improvements in user posture and reduction in user effort. Tools with superior maneuverability and adjustability will fit into tighter spaces while improving working postures and overall user comfort.

Speed
While faster-performing tools have gained in popularity due to time savings and increased productivity, the greater benefit comes from the shorter period of time the tools are in workers’ hands. As the time in hand is reduced, the risk of ergonomic exposure is also reduced. This relationship significantly correlates to a reduction in muscle effort and overall ergonomic impact.

Practice Makes Perfect
Purchasing the right tools is only half the battle; using them correctly is the other half. Proper use starts with training workers about the correct hand postures to employ while engaging a tool’s trigger. Allowing a user’s wrist to sit in a neutral position when working with a tool is an important aspect of ergonomic tool use. When a wrist displays flexion – bending toward the palm – or extension – bending toward the back of the hand – during tool engagement, the risk of ergonomic injury increases. Inflammation may occur in the carpal tunnel, leading to carpal tunnel syndrome. Work practices that display ulnar deviation – tilting the wrist toward the little finger – and radial deviation – tilting the wrist toward the thumb – also often increase the risk for carpal tunnel syndrome and can lead to long-term, irreparable injuries.

Return on Investment
For utilities such as Xcel Energy and Florida Power & Light Co., having ergonomists on staff is significantly helpful during the tool selection process. Some utilities that do not have staff ergonomists are instead organizing teams to evaluate tools and work practices for their ergonomic benefits and shortcomings. Whatever your organization’s approach, applying ergonomic principles when evaluating and purchasing new tools will result in long- and short-term returns on investments, including:
• Increased worker productivity.
• Healthier employees who sustain fewer ergonomic injuries, resulting in reduced medical and workers’ compensation costs.
• Lower employee turnover rates and reduced costs associated with retraining and replacing workers.

If your company doesn’t have an ergonomist or ergonomic team evaluating the tools and work practices you use, it may be time to investigate why that’s the case. And if you do have an individual or team in place, it’s a good idea for management to periodically review the questions posed by those employees when they perform tool assessments to ensure all bases are being covered.

Conclusion
Times have changed, and today there are a variety of battery-operated tools available to help workers safely and comfortably complete their tasks. Many utility companies across North America are already seeing a decline in musculoskeletal orders as a result of workers using these tools. If you haven’t yet made the investment, there’s no time like the present to start doing your research, and there are a variety of educational resources available to help, from ergonomics experts to tool manufacturers and distributors to online data from OSHA and other organizations. Although battery-operated tools often have a higher upfront cost than manual tools, the data shows they help keep employees safer and healthier over a longer period of time, resulting in lower medical costs and greater employee morale and productivity. And that’s great news for everyone.

About the Author: Raffi Elchemmas, AEP, MBA, is a tool ergonomist at Greenlee Textron. He is board certified in professional ergonomics, completed his kinesiology studies at Michigan State University and is a member of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. Elchemmas has presented at numerous international conferences and contributed to a number of publications on ergonomics and health care. He can be reached at relchemmas@greenlee.textron.com.

Editor’s Note: If you’d like more information about the return on investment from ergonomic tools, Raffi Elchemmas will present “The Cost of Ergonomics” on September 28 at the iP Utility Safety Conference & Expo in Louisville, Ky.

Safety Management, Worksite Safety, Equipment Operations

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