By Alan Gross, President & Kayla Szabo, Writer
AMG Bolting Solutions
The long-term effects of working as a wind technician takes a toll. Symptoms, such as joint pain, carpal tunnel, hearing loss, and other lower back or upper limb disorders can sneak up on workers over time and cause long-term pain or injury.
Unfortunately, anyone who works in construction, manufacturing, transportation, or the O&M sectors are at risk of experiencing safety hazards because of exposure and potential overuse of power tools. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, this impacts at least 13% of the U.S. labor force.
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that occupational hearing loss is the most common symptom for such workers. It occurs most prominently in the manufacturing industry, where the CDC says 72% of recorded illnesses were reported. This percentage only accounts for proven hearing caused in the workplace, and must qualify as hearing impaired for the case to have made the report. This means there are likely a number of unreported cases.
Research shows that vibration-related conditions are also becoming more common in the workplace. For example, hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) is a blood circulation condition caused by overuse of vibration tools, regardless of type. HAVS can occur from repeated use of small tools, such as an electric drill, and large ones, such as a jackhammer.
From the kitchen to a jobsite
You may not think a drill could do damage but, in 2010, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (or EU-OSHA — Europe’s version of OHSA, the Occupational Health & Safety Administration in the U.S.) published a report with this finding: “As a result of increased levels of production and the corresponding need to introduce new workers to the assembly lines…work-related upper limb disorders rose in the kitchen appliances manufacturer.”
So what does an electric mixer have to do with an electric drill? It turns out that the Prevention and Protection Service, which helped conduct the study, suspected a correlation between the vibrations generated by appliances and tools and the increasing number of pathologies. An addendum to the original study was added and it stated that the Agency was correct in its assumption.
EU OSHA immediately put forth a plan to reduce these risks: “The aim was the elimination at source of the risk from vibrations transmitted to the hand-arm system by bringing the vibration exposure to below the action values defined by Directive 2002/44/EC, by substitution of the pneumatic screwdrivers that produce higher levels of vibrations.”
One hurdle stood in the way of achieving the goal. At the time, it was not easy to find an electric drill, screwdriver, or impact gun, which (in addition to reducing vibrations) had characteristics specifically tailored to the activities carried out in the manufacturing or construction industries.
Impact guns, often used in the wind industry, release a significant amount of vibration and noise because of the tool’s power mechanics. But just think of the potential damage on its user: a thrashing device within the gearbox repetitively strikes to offset reaction forces. The tool can also act as a hammer to weaken bolt studs and induce tension reduction.
Designing an economic tool that could reliably do its job, while providing users with a safe, ergonomic hold is no easy task. Fortunately, some companies are participating in the challenge. As one example, HYTORC and sister manufacturer TORC, LLC offer the TTB LION-.25, a battery-powered torque gun that serves as an alternative to impact wrenches. LION Gun’s noise emission is 70-75dB, which is below the industry recommended 85dB for safety.
While many company and workers now take safety precautions, and are aware of the risks of loud noises and repeated exposure to vibration tools, there is still cause for concern.
For example, although some manufacturers list decibel and vibration (dB) levels (volumes) on their products, it is not yet mandated to do so. Therefore, how can a worker tell if a jobsite or tools are causing harm?
As a frame of reference for sound, consider a typical conversation’s volume measured in decibels (dB). It’s about 60 dB. An impact gun can be as loud as 100 dB, and even worse, a hammer drill is nearly 115 dB. The decibel scale is logarithmic so 70dB is twice as loud as 60dB. That makes it easier to understand how an impact gun or hammer drill can cause extreme damage to the ears.
Unfortunately for vibration risks, there is no current standardized method for measuring a vibration exposure period. Typically, exposure durations are quantified by reviews of work histories, observations or employee interviews. Research to date so far has found that these methods are notoriously inaccurate.
Without precise measurements, it is difficult to accurately predict how a vibration-related condition may threaten a worker’s future ability to perform his or her job. If there is even minor cause for concern, it may indirectly impact a worker’s job security. So it is important for workers to develop good safety habits while on the job.
Current data indicates that risk of HAVS depends on the intensity of vibration and the duration of exposure. The daily vibration, exposure action value (A) for a worker completing a single task or using a power tool can be calculated based on the magnitude of intensity and exposure duration. Therefore, it follows that the higher the intensity and longer the exposure, the more hazardous for the employee.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provides helpful information on how to gauge safe decibel levels and reduce exposure to harmful vibrations.
In addition, even seemingly minor personal protection gear (such as safety gloves or noise-cancelling headphones) may help delay or prevent the effects of hearing loss or HAVS. It is also an employees’ responsibility to effectively train workers and ensure a safe working environment. Studies have shown that when employers are committed to safety and injury prevention, employees are more likely to share that dedication and regularly don protective devices.
Workers’ compensation can add up quickly, particularly in the construction and O&M industry. That said, worker safety should take precedence. Employers should consider protection gear and tools that are reliable, and that increase production time and worker safety and job security.