Installers: Save your back for your kids

SaveYourBack4YourKidsGetting down and dirty may apply to many occupations, but none more-so than the floor-covering business. However, man wasn’t designed to work that close to the ground.

The carpet installer can especially attest to this — stretching out a thick material to fit tightly into rooms and staircases requires careful planning, skill, brute force and forgiving knees.


Certainly occupational health and safety regulations apply to all trades across Canada to protect workers from themselves, employers and their environments. But rules are rules, and they aren’t much good unless they come with proper training — and applied.

David Furlano, member of the Ontario College of Trades (OCT), Floor Covering Installer Trade Board, points to the Apprenticeship Training Standard for the discipline in Ontario.

A floor covering installer in that province is formally trained to “demonstrate safe working practices and procedures” during his apprenticeship,” according to the OCT curriculum.

Furlano notes that issues such as repetitive strain “is addressed in school but all apprentices by law must take courses such as safety awareness and WHMIS training,” but that “this training is often supplied by employers.”

An apprenticeship in the Floor Covering Installer trade in Ontario is 6,000 hours of on-the-job training and two levels of in-school training comprising 300 hours each, according to Furlano.

Using and maintaining personal protective equipment is key to OCT training. This includes hard hats, gloves, glasses, goggles, masks, face shields, ear protectors/plugs, coveralls, reflector vests, safety footwear, knee protectors, fall-protection equipment, harnesses, and breathing apparatus.

“If you look at any manual put out by trade associations for installers a lot of them go through safety issues,” says Christopher Capobianco, sales and technical support representative, Spartan Surfaces of New York City. He notes that respirators are important — and more widely used today that in the past when “macho” job site culture prevailed — to guard against dust and fumes in both renovations and new builds.

“They cover stuff that you’d consider as common sense. Things like proper lifting techniques — bend at the knees to minimize the impact on your back. From the point of view of knees, that’s probably the number problem that installers have. Back in the 1970s you didn’t see installers wearing knee pads, and then later you’d see them start. There’s been some advancements in knee pads in the last 20-plus years.”

One knee protector invention goes all the way down to just above the ankle, says Capobianco, “I still use it when I need to do some flooring work.”

Although kneeling cannot be eliminated, the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) website says, carpet layers should wear protective knee pads whenever kneeling on hard surfaces. In addition, they should use the power stretcher — a safe alternative to the knee kicker that does not use the knee. Employers should ensure that each carpet layer is trained in the proficient use of the power stretcher and that a sufficient number of these devices are available to each crew of carpet installers, NIOSH advises.

Carpet layers make up less than 0.06 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to one study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, but they file 6.2 percent of all workers’ compensation claims for traumatic knee injury — a rate that is 108 times expected in the total workforce and the highest rate of any occupation reporting such claims. This rate is also high for tile setters (53 times) and floor layers (46 times), both of whom perform work that requires kneeling on hard floors.

No-cost prevention strategies

Mandy Gallant, senior ergonomist at ErgoRisk Management Group in Vancouver, a consulting firm that addresses ergonomics and movement safety, and a member of the Association of Canadian Ergonomists. Gallant has studied the human body functioning in a wide variety of working environments.

“The goal of ergonomics is getting a good fit between the worker and their environment. We’ve got to work with what we’ve got to work with. The materials are there and the shape of the room or the installation can’t be changed.

“It doesn’t matter what you do for a living. If you use your body the way it was meant to be used it can go a long way to making you fitter, stronger and more flexible. If you use your body in a manner that is contrary to the manner in which it was meant to be used, every movement that you make is putting negative wear and tear on your body. Setting up muscle imbalances brings you closer to an injury.”

The consequences of not using your body the correct way are numerous, Gallant notes, including for installers who have a dominant hand or a dominant knee. “If you’re repeating the same movement in an asymmetrical way without having the joints in the right position you’re setting yourself up for imbalances. That can lead to wear and tear which can lead to discomfort and ultimately lead to injury.”

The solution to the problem of repetitive strain injuries and their consequences — water on the knee, for example — means remembering to actually correct a movement, as well as analyzing it in the first place.

There are a few things Gallant would recommend. By alternating sides, or becoming more ambidextrous, “that’s a no brainer from an ergonomic standpoint,” she says. “While we do understand that people tend to have less coordination and less fine motor control with their non dominant side arm or leg. It is important if you’re in a trade that requires repetitive use from one side or another that you figure out a way to get some balance there.

“Kneeling with one knee up in a neutral position means you alternate which knee is up which knee is down. If you’re using a knee and swinging a hammer forward, a kind of maneuver which you see sometimes in carpeting, you alternate knees for that. But even when you’re bringing your materials and your tools to the work place and you’re carrying a toolbox always in your right hand — you’re setting up your lower back and your shoulder for some potential asymmetry.

“As you’re reaching for tools all of us can always reach with our non dominant hand. For us it’s great if you have a line item in the article that says ‘alternate hands,’ but we need people to understand why. When you’re reducing wear and tear on a dominant hand you’re setting up better balance in your body between your right and left side.

“These are the reasons, not just because we said so and someone will say ‘I can’t do it in my left hand I’ve got to use my right.’ It’s important that people understand why we’re trying to get that balance and why we’re sharing the workload between the right and left.”

Besides a “balancing” act, “it’s also really important that people prepare their bodies for the demands of the work,” according to Gallant.

“Sometimes that can look like a group warm up in an industrial environment if you’ve got a crew of people.”

Knowing what your personal limitations are helps, too. “Doing a bit of a stretch or a bit of a warm up. While that’s a recommendation you’ve heard a million times and it’s in all industry publications: ‘For injury prevention do a warm up.’

“The why is important. We want to warm up with certain movement patterns so that the muscles
are more capable of being stretched through the movement.”

This reduces the risk of injury. “A lot of the stretches that we recommend include something like a power squat, which is loosening up your hips,” Gallant says.

Getting the right flexibility is also important. “So that when you are kneeling down and when you are in an awkward position you can keep your body in a neutral spine posture hinging through the hips so that your injury risk is less.

“It’s not just ‘yeah I’m getting the blood flowing.’ It’s ‘I’m loosening up my hips so that I can hinge through those hips in the right way when I’m bending. I’m stretching my muscles out so that when I reach forward rather than having to tweak to my rotator cuff. I’ve engaged the right flexibility to the movement.’”

Tools to ease the strain

Capobianco is a believer in using the right tools and materials on the job to provide physical relief for installers. He recommends the use of power stretchers for carpet layers — “they add weight” to the tool chest “but are worth it” — instead of relying on knee braces.

“Some of the other options that installers have,” he says, “at least on the carpet side and the resilient flooring side, are some of the adhesives available now that you don’t have to put on with a trowel. Which means you go out and spray or use a paint roller so you don’t have to get down on your knees to apply it. That’s a real way of helping installers have a little less wear and tear on their bodies.”

Installers can certainly increase their longevity and physical comfort on the work site if necessary steps are taken, but there’s “more to life than just flooring” as someone quipped in the aisles at the Surfaces 2016 show in Las Vegas.

“Most importantly it lets you do whatever your recreational activity is on the weekend because you’re not sore,” says Gallant. “It really translates into your home life as well. It makes it easier to throw your kids up in the air if your rotator cuff isn’t sore from what you were doing on the job.”

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