Two knees support installer careers

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), such as chronic back pain or shoulder problems, often take time to develop. Forceful exertion, awkward positions, hand-arm and whole-body vibration, contact stress, and repetitive tasks can add up over time to produce an MSD.

This statement comes courtesy of Ontario’s Infrastructure Health and Safety Association (IHSA) pamphlet on musculoskeletal hazards and controls for flooring installers. Ergonomics experts and floorcovering veterans all agree that MSDs contribute to shortened careers, time lost and poorer quality of life in general.

Even those in the floor cleaning business can get the MSD blues, according to Lee Senter, a certified IICRC instructor and Health and Safety chair, president of the Canadian Flooring, Cleaning and Restoration Association (CFCRA) and owner/operator of Vaughan, Ont.-based Senterprises. “I have degenerative disc disease in my lower and upper back from pushing a carpet cleaning wand for 30 years in a bad ergonomic position,” says Senter. He remembers always pushing the wand from one position during that time, never switching sides to take the strain off of his body.

A huge culprit in shortening work-life spans for carpet installers is the use of a knee kicker instead of a power stretcher. To combat this in British Columbia, WorkSafeBC has mandated the use of power stretchers when laying carpet. “If you don’t,” says Senter, “you should be written up because you go on worker’s compensation for a bunch of money because you are always hurting yourself.” Knee kickers add stress where it shouldn’t be, according to ergonomist Peter Vi at the IHSA. “They cause a lot of stress on the knees,” says Vi. “The (U.S.) National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety did a big study on knee care and found that they contribute to high forces on the knees.”

HARD SURFACE SPECIALIST Drew Kern of Infinity Claims Management Solutions in Milton, Ont., has over 20 years of experience and has supervised crews up to 15 on installation projects. Also a certified flooring inspector, he believes that having the correct tools tailored to the installer’s body type go a long way to reduce musculoskeletal disorders acquired from either standing or kneeling positions.

“With the stand-up position,” says Kern, “hardwood installers are usually using hammer-activated nailers. These nailers need to be adjusted and do have handle height adjustments. The installer should adjust the tool to their person.”

Kern cautions that the hammer-activated tools should not be hit too hard when performing the repetitive action of lifting up a hammer and lowering it to “smack” the boards. “There are pneumatically activated nailers on the market that allow you to use a lot lighter hit,” says Kern, “so it is easier on your shoulders and joints. These guys are smacking these things harder than they have to.” He adds that some of the older tools require a harder hit to drive nails in properly.

THE FLOORING INDUSTRY is full of salesmen that were once installers, but whose knees gave out, the story goes. Louise Carvalho, regional technical sales representative for Custom Building Products in western Canada, is just such an example. Born into a construction family, his father was a master carpenter and his uncle taught him to tile set when Carvalho was only seven years old. After earning a business diploma and working the airline industry, Carvalho was drawn to the flooring market where he started his own business installing tile and hardwood flooring.

“What I found is that three years after I shut the business down, my back was getting sore and couldn’t figure out why until they started doing some MRIs and CAT scans,” says Carvalho. “They discovered I had some bulging discs. I had always had back pain but had never really thought anything of it until it got to the point where I was laid up for a week.

“Once it was discovered what I had, we had to try to figure out what to do to resolve it.” Carvalho turned to exercise, physiotherapy, acupuncture and other treatments. “At this point my back was so bad that all I could do was just pain management. I was on Percocet and the occasional morphine and spinal injections.”

Vi notes that the permanent risk factors for MSD are awkward posture, high forces and repetition, as well as other secondary risk factors such as constant contact stress. “For a trade where you are kneeling all of the time means there is contact stress with the knees and the hard surface of the floor. Whenever you are moving away from the natural posture it’s considered the awkward posture — bending, kneeling, squatting, for example — rather than the natural standing posture.

“On top of that, if you are lifting heavy items such as anything more than 30 to 50 pounds,” says Vi, “that also increases the risk of injuries. Because the higher the weight, the more forces that our muscles need to work in order to counteract those forces that we need to actually do the work.”

THE BEST WAY TO CONTROL and reduce those kinds of risk factors is by reducing the repetition or the severity of the awkward posture and the muscular stress of those high forces. Controls mean being able to take jobs and perform tasks that are away from the floor. “So, you could rotate between working on the floor versus other tasks,” says Vi. “You can also use a variety of such mechanical assistance as carts or dollies.

“In the flooring industry you can also use good kneepads or wheeled knee castors that allow you to reduce the contact stress. It also allows you to have mobility when you are working around the floor.”

Vi recommends a device called the knee creeper that permits kneeling plus sitting in a squatted position that gets the installer up from the ground while also allowing more mobility.

Senter adds, “There are pants that are made to have built in kneepads which is supposed to alleviate that type of stress on the body.” Kern also strongly suggests knee protection. “Because if you know how your knee works, it is bone on the floor when you are kneeling.”

Because of friction between your knee and the ground a lot of forces are caused to apply to the particular joint, according to Vi, this can lead to bursitis and tendonitis as just two injuries that have to be dealt with.

“But whether you buy some $10 or $5 or even $300 customized kneepads like I have,” says Kern, “it is about getting something that works for your body.” Kern has inserts in the pants as well. “It is not very much padding, but it is very convenient when you have to get up and walk over to the saw. You don’t have kneepads strapped to your skin or pulling on the hairs on your legs.

“I must have gone through 30 or 40 different kinds of kneepads before I found something that I like.”

Kern also stresses that installers should be mindful of the weight that they are carrying in relation to their body positions — the ergonomics of lifting. “It is about the size shape and weight of some of these cartons,” he says. “A box of hardwood can be seven feet long, and with the exotic woods they can be very heavy. The installer carrying these long boxes has to have a twist. It is not like you can carry it like a case of beer in front of you.

“Young kids think that they can pick up these two boxes and carry them. Now you are carrying twice the weight. You have a bit of twist to your back with one arm in front and one arm behind you and you are carrying these boxes from one room to the next. Be careful in lifting the odd shape and size and weight of these cartons.”

Carvalho couldn’t agree more when it comes to lifting concerns on the job. “When I was tile setting, I was a hero carrying two bags of thinset up and down stairs — one hundred pounds on your shoulder — sometimes I had two bags on each shoulder. Carrying 200 pounds!

“It put such a huge stress on my back. Don’t be a hero.”

He is also concerned for installers who have to work with large, heavy tiles that require more manpower to move into position.

“You need that manpower to do the job.” However, when you are running your own tile installation business, small owner/operators have profits on their mind.

“They are thinking, ‘I’ve got to cut my labour and I’ve got to do it by myself,’” says Carvalho. “They just beat themselves up trying to keep the business.”

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