Health Concerns for Installers
March 13, 2008
When floor covering installer training is mentioned, invariably the association is made that the training involves hands-on skills. That’s fair, because no matter what segment of the flooring industry you represent, everyone appreciates a trained floor covering installer. Qualified journeymen installers undergo many hours of product and hands-on skills training. No doubt, they have a wallet full of certification cards to prove they are competent. What an asset for the company, customer, and the industry.
Skill training prepares an installer for the day-in, day-out type of work that they are employed to perform. What skill training does not do is protect a floor layer from all the hazards they face each day. For that, safety training is necessary. There seems to be an old, universal floor layer safety program that is most often used, and it goes like this: Don’t cut yourself and WHEN you do, don’t bleed on the new floor. The added incentive is “get hurt, don’t work.” This type of approach is just not practical in today’s world.
Often, installers overlook safety concerns and underestimate the long-term impact from chemical exposure and physical demands. They are ill prepared to make these determinations. All day they are up and down off the floor, cutting and fitting products. These tasks make floor layers an ideal candidate for repetitive motion injury. This trauma can develop in wrists, hands, knees and hips from doing an activity over an extended period of time. Consider the way a knife is held during trimming, or a trowel when spreading adhesive. This stresses the same body parts continually. Ask a veteran installer about that tingly feeling, or numbness in the wrist or hand. Consider banging that knee kicker. Do you really think that there is not a price to pay in the future for that knee abuse?
Think about all the fumes that are inhaled when spreading adhesives, mixing patch, or just sweeping the floor. What makes adhesive even worse is that an installer’s breathing zone is about 18 to 24 inches away, and the constant churning action continually releases more chemical fumes. The silica sand in the patch is a known respiratory hazard. This also applies to the thinset and grouts that are used. I feel most floor layers have gotten the message about asbestos, but still wonder if some jobs are not just pushed through anyway.
Lifting and carrying heavy loads also comes with the daily tasks. Pulling, shoving, shifting and positioning materials can create back, leg and neck injuries. The potential risk seems much greater when you consider that many floor layers work in two- or three-man crews. The 60-foot carpet cut has got to get to the homeowners basement somehow and there are no reserves to call in. They just step up and do it. Commercial work also has its share of exposure. Instead of 60-foot cuts, most often it is full rolls that are being jockeyed around. There is too much weight, too few bodies, and no equipment to offset the difference.
Everyone recognizes a sudden injury: a cut finger, a pulled muscle, or smashed thumb. What is hidden is the long-term cumulative damage that is done to the body. It is a building process that takes its toll years down the line. The unfortunate part is that much can be done to protect floor layers prior to this physical abuse occurring. Safety training is not about passing out a few brochures and handing out some safety glasses. It is a safety strategy that includes education training, implementation, and monitoring.
Since I am familiar with INSTALL, let me share a few highlights of their approach and model, which could serve as a foundation for industry-wide safety training. First of all safety is not a stand-alone subject. Safety is incorporated right into the skills training. If you are going to take the time to learn a skill, you might as well learn to do it correctly and safely at the same time. Lessons on adhesives and patching introduce an awareness of respiratory hazards. This teaching method makes safety relevant to a floor layer. Using correct body posture when lifting, or keeping your free hand higher up, away from the knife when straight edging are simple, yet effect things to protect installers. There are classes that address the need, use, and care of personal protective equipment (PPE). When it comes to PPE, there is no substitute for understanding the applications and perhaps more importantly, the limitations. There are many in-depth classes that cover specific issues, such as first aid, forklift operation, and MSDS. Classroom safety lectures are practiced during shop exercises, so that good habits are ingrained into the skill procedures.
The training of the INSTALL floor layers is key, but so is the training of the instructors themselves, because misinformation can be worse than no information at all. Government regulations regarding safety can be very confusing and ever changing. With INSTALL, the instructors are regularly updated through Train-the-Trainer Programs from the Carpenters International Training Fund. The CITF promotes teamwork regarding safety. The curriculum stresses that floor layers must take responsibility and commit to safety in the workplace. This is a positive situation because others simply want to push all the responsibility off on the company owners.
In closing, think of safety and personal preservation this way: Floor layers are an asset, a valuable human asset. Providing proper safety training helps them to protect themselves and ensure a long career. Safety is business smart, providing better productivity, fewer lost injury days, reduced workman’s compensation rates, and positive team-building.
Author’s Note: If you are part of INSTALL or have interest and would like further information, contact John McGrath, INSTALL Director, at 215-582-4108 or via email at INSTALL@carpenters.org. Several industry associations like the Floor Covering Installation Contractors Association, National Wood Flooring Association, and groups like the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certification are resources for safety training information.