Plumbing Trends: Ergonomic Tools
Watch your backs, plumbers.
No, seriously. Watch your backs, knees, necks, wrists and any other body part that may be ailing you at this very moment.
Working hard takes its toll on your body, and it's up to you to choose the right tools to get the job done safely. And today's tool manufacturers are working hard to make your everyday tasks as easy as possible.
“A plumber's most valuable tool is not a pipe wrench but his or her body,” says Rob Bennette, president and co-founder of Bennette Design Group Inc. “You have only one back, one set of knees, and protecting them will help insure a long-lasting career in plumbing.” BDG manufactures the Plumbers Pad, Plumbers Wedge and other installation safety accessories that help plumbers stay healthy on the job.
Bennette and his brother Randy grew up in a plumbing family, and observed first-hand their father suffer daily with back and knee injuries from working under cabinetry and other body-bending environments. “Plumbers do a great deal of their work on their backs (under sinks) and knees. Jobsite conditions for plumbers are challenging, with the cabinet toe-kick notorious for causing injury to the back and ribs,” Bennette notes.
BDG's Plumbers Pad and Plumbers Wedge feature award-winning design and construction. A foldable head pad rests inside a cabinet, and clears the toe-kick easily with its 6-inch-thick base pad. It is lightweight and has shoulder straps for easy transport to and from a jobsite, and the durable fabric covering repels water and resists mildew.
For everyday tools and the tasks they perform, Lenox - well known for its quality blades and power tool accessories - has ventured into the hand tool market, and has specifically redesigned the tools plumbers use on every job, including its ergonomically designed professional line of tubing cutters.
“To meet plumbers' needs, Lenox has elevated its design and enhanced the tools' features, paying close attention to the way a product is handled and used in a task,” says Lee Wilkins, director of marketing hand tools for Lenox. “We've worked to reduce stress and fatigue for the user, as well as reduce the time it takes to complete a task.”
To obtain the information it needed, Lenox visited many jobsites, getting feedback and observing end-users as they worked - the articulated needs of tool users. But Lenox also was interested in the “unarticulated” needs. It discovered environmental conditions - hot day, sweaty palms; cold day, use gloves, etc. - played a part in how hand-tool function came into play.
“Plumbers, we found, sometimes didn't cut or modify pipe until it was in place,” explains Emily Furnal, hand tool product manager for Lenox. “That means they would jam their knuckles trying to cut the pipe in a tight spot.”
The new Lenox tubing cutter features a ball-bearing construction, rather than a simple screw, which makes it more compact for limited working room. Also, the turn knob is squared-off in shape, with a finger-groove design, which requires no additional tool to turn the tool and make the cut.
Manufacturing ergonomic tools means taking into consideration 1) a repetitive action and its stress on an individual, and 2) the grip force needed to complete a task, according to Wilkins.
“In a profession where like and similar tasks are performed daily, the less stress from tool use the better,” Wilkins says. “Injuries may not show up immediately, but they'll take their toll.”
Lenox also is working to reduce the weight of many of their tools. Cast-iron pipe wrenches - every plumber's staple - now are replaced by cast aluminum, where weight is reduced by 40 percent and durability can be replicated with modern technology.
Speaking of heavy lifting, a recent ergonomics report from LP International Inc. discovered that 75 percent of workplace injuries are back-related, and cost U.S. industries $20 billion annually.
“Investing in ways to mitigate these costs and reduce absenteeism is more than ideal, it's an economic necessity,” the report states.
The company's PowerMateâ motorized stairclimbing hand truck was designed to minimize stress on the body from lifting and carrying everything from water heaters and boilers to pumps and compressors. The operator has complete control of the load, which could be up to 1,500 lbs. Its fully motorized lifter powers loads up and down stairs, and off vehicles and loading docks.
PowerMate not only reduces stress to the body, it cuts labor costs in half by decreasing the effort required to move heavy loads by 50 percent. Its secure operation also reduces possible property damage from the movement of awkward and heavy items.
Other plumbing-related tools consistent with ergonomic design:
- Irwin Industrial Tool Co.'s Vise-Gripâ Quick Adjusting Pipe Wrench, which features one-handed operation and a smooth release, as well as a 43 percent weight reduction vs. traditional cast-iron pipe wrenches.
- Bosch Power Tools' 1800 Series 7- and 9-inch large angle grinders with an antivibration-handle system, which reduces vibration exposure by 60 percent.
- Watts Brass & Tubular's PipeFastÔ for securing copper, CPVC and PEX pipe to wood similarly to a staple gun. No additional hammer required, and its lightweight and slim design reaches tight places.
“Plumbers are now realizing that it is a good business practice to employ ergonomic tools that help keep them on the job and reduce avoidable injuries,” Bennette says.
Furnal agrees. “You might see a 'generation gap' between a veteran on the job and a younger worker, but today's apprentices are recognizing the benefits of using the right tools.”