Hand-tool makers emphasize safety and ergonomics
By Tom Venetis
February 13, 2017
By Tom Venetis
When it comes to hand tools the focus needs to be on safety and ergonomics.
Hand tools will be used for long hours in hazardous conditions and often in remote work areas where, if a tool is forgotten or lost, a replacement can’t simply be found by nipping down the hall or to the van and getting another.
Take the example for working at heights at an oil and gas refinery or on a wind turbine. Once a maintenance team goes up onto a wind turbine or a refinery’s vacuum distillation tower, workers need to be able to account for every tool and to make sure no tool is lost or falls.
“Safety today is a big factor, especially here in Ontario with the mandated Working at Heights [requirements],” says Laurette Blake, commercialization manager for Proto and Mechanical tools at Stanley Black & Decker Canada, GTS Group. “Although tools are not mandated to be tethered, people are mandated to be tethered when working at heights and to be aware of what the issues are.”
One of the key issues is ensuring that tools being used are secure and all steps are taken to prevent a tool from being lost or dropped from a height during maintenance and service work. That seems obvious to many. However, it is quite easy for a tool to slip from one’s grasp when one is either switching between tools or looking for one in a tool bag. Because of this possibility, toolmakers are now looking for ways to give maintenance workers a way to tether tools to themselves while allowing workers to retain freedom of movement and ease of access to tools, especially when working at heights.
Blake says the company’s SkyHook Tether & Transfer System addresses those issues. It is designed to give positive tool control where foreign material exclusion (FME) is needed. It comes with a switch connector that is attached to a lanyard that is rated for up to 6-lb loads. The tethers can then be attached to an anchor worn on the body or by a series of docks with the Skyhook connector, and to the tools needed for work with small carabiners.
Blake says that the system allows for workers to have complete accountability of all their tools, so none are ever left behind on a site, left unattended or dropped. “This is immensely important as a safety factor,” says Blake. “If a tool is not on your wrist, it is either on the [anchor station] or on your belt. This helps prevent the possibility of the tool being dropped in a hazardous environment from a height. It also allows someone to make sure that all the tools are accounted for so nothing is misplaced or forgotten.”
Another important aspect of safety on a jobsite is ergonomics. Tools are often used for long periods of time in environments that can be hard on a person’s body. Used continuously over several hours, a grinder’s vibration, for example, can cause a worker to suffer from what is known a “white finger/muscle disease,” better known as carpal tunnel syndrome. That is why ergonomic is now a key consideration both in deciding which tools workers will use and how toolmakers go about designing tools. The emphasis today by toolmakers, especially those who make electric and pneumatic tools, is on designing tools that can be used for long periods of time while reducing such issues as vibration to minimize damage to a person’s body.
“Ergonomic acceptance by users is directly related to several factors,” says Jim Bohn, director, strategic development, Robert Bosch Tool Corporation. “How big is the gear/motor housing? That is a key area that affects the ability to get into tight areas and the weight factor [of the tool]. Another, is the balance of the tool for long-term use, and the battery size.”
Bohn says some things people should be looking for in a power tools is the use of EC or brushless motors, gear systems that are compact and efficient, and a balanced overall industrial design that places ergonomics top-of-mind. Another is battery life and how the tool handles heat when used over long periods of time. Heat will impact a battery’s life, so how a tool handles the heat is important. Many of these tools are being used on worksites where it is not possible for a worker to easily go and get another battery if the one they are using runs out of power. Protection from stray electrical discharge is something else to keep in mind, especially if the tool is to be used in hazardous environments where an accidental electrical discharge can trigger an explosion causing injury to workers and damage to surrounding machinery and equipment.
“The battery is not only the cordless power tool’s power source, but also a critical factor in the performance and runtime users require to have trust in cordless power tools,” Bohn says. “Therefore, the lifespan of a battery is one of those important factors for a reliable battery system.” What should be looked for is how well the tool draws heat away from the power cells and how well it manages battery performance. Stray electrical discharge can be managed through electronics and making sure the tool has the correct insulation, Bohn adds.
Cordless power tools
Much of the focus in the power tool industry has also been on improving the performance values of cordless power tools with more advanced and compact brushless motors and improved electronics for better power management, says Bohn. “Brushless motors provide [better] tool life, more torque performance and a smaller compact motor, which results in a more compact and more ergonomic power tool. The electronics maximizes the performance of the motor and the power required from the battery system. The value of these power tool advances to users working on complex machines or systems is increased power, longer runtime and a compact tool that can complete any application required. Having a reliable and high-performance cordless power tool, not having to change batteries or find another power tool for various maintenance operations is a time saver, a money saver.”
Randy McDonald, national product manager with FEIN Canada, says that another safety feature to consider in hand tools is overload production, especially in grinders. “If someone is using the grinder for heavy grinding work or cutting thick material, and if the operator jams or twists the wheel, there should be overload protection to protect the motor from burning out.”
McDonald says many grinders on the market still use a mechanical clutch to reduce the changes of overload the motor. While a mechanical clutch system works well, there are problems with such systems with prolonged use. “A mechanical clutch has a problem in that is has mechanical parts and if the grinder is jammed multiple times, the mechanical clutch can have its parts wear out. Electronic systems are just that, electronic, so there are no mechanical parts to wear out.”
Tom Venetis is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.