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Construction Safety

In Construction, Tools—Not Workers—May Pose the Danger

TJ Lyons | September 16, 2021

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This Expert Commentary centers on one incident—from the injury to the solution. This injury is created by an unsafe tool that is used routinely. With about 5,200 deaths a year in the workplace, what we are doing is not working. The goal of this commentary is to look for those unsafe things we have allowed and get them corrected.

In construction accidents, the tendency is to blame the workers first and rarely look at what put them in danger in the first place. If a tool spins in someone's hands, breaking a wrist, it's due to "worker inattention." If they step in a hole and break an ankle, it's said that the "worker failed to maintain situational awareness," and we don't call it hogwash.

This commentary centers on the design of tools and equipment used. One would expect that anything produced for sale in the United States would be safe to use. Not true. In a previous column, I reviewed several tools that we use that we should not. See "Construction Safety: Litigation Not Legislation." Granted, when you buy a chainsaw, you are accepting risk when you use it. Purchase a rifle, and it's up to you and only you where you choose to point it. This constant is fundamental in safety: res ipsa loquitur, meaning the thing speaks for itself.

Following is an example of an unsafe tool and injury that resulted from its use. In addition to replacing the tool with something safe, it's very important to change worker attitudes about this use of the tool. Unrecognized bad habits resulted from the user not realizing what the correct and incorrect ways to use the tool looked like. Consider some of the warnings that come with these types of metal shaping tools.

Dress properly. Do not wear loose clothing or jewelry. They can be caught in rotating and moving parts. Avoid slippery floors or wear nonskid footwear. If you have long hair, wear protective hair covering to contain it.

Do not reach into rotating equipment. Do not reach into the rotating head stock to clear chips, to make adjustments, or to check surface finish. A machine designed to cut steel will not stop for a hand or an arm.

The following will read as a story but has implications whenever you spot something unsafe in the field. If you see a problem with tools, make course corrections and change the process.

Dangerous Tool Example

In construction, we typically see the danger in a tool and choose to protect the person using it. A great example is asking the operator of a handheld power saw who is cutting stone to wear a respirator rather than design the tool to eliminate the dust. The manufacturer knows the dust produced by the unsafe tool will slowly kill the user, so the instruction manual asks the users to protect themselves. Think of that irony.

Photo by TJ Lyons

It started with a call from the field. A young woman had her fingernail torn off while using a handheld drill-like device. Unlike her finger, the gloves she was wearing were undamaged. The tool is used for facing the end of a stainless-steel pipe so that it can be contacted and welded to the next section using a handheld lathe called, yes, a "facing tool." Unique to these devices (a few years ago) is an opening that allows the user to peer into the tool to see it work or use a tool to remove shards of the material as they are shaved from the end of the pipe. This opening is large enough to stick a pair of pliers or your finger in. As shown below, the clear cover slides over the opening so that the spinning shards do not cut the user. It is not a guard.

The Expected Response

The injury details were shared across the balance of the projects as a warning. Similar stories, including severed fingertips and amputation from these tools, soon came to light. The conventional safety response was the following.

  • Crews were assembled, and the dangers and outcomes of sticking your finger into moving parts were explained.
  • Stickers were made that said: "Do Not Stick Your Finger into Opening."
  • Guards were field improvised to cover this opening to be installed by the users.
  • New stickers were made stating: "Use of this tool without the guard will result in your dismissal."

In all of these situations, we looked at the user, not the tool.

A New Look at an Old Tool

While the field response was underway, a call to the manufacturer revealed the opening was recognized as a hazard, and yes, a guard could be purchased as an option. A further discussion found similar disconnects between the manufacturer and those in the field. Another example is a large floor-mounted facing tool that also presents an entanglement hazard. It states in the user manual that a foot pedal should be used to provide instant disconnect of the machine in an emergency. This safety device is also sold as an option.

User Feedback

A team of experienced "fitters" was assembled, which were men and women who used these facing tools daily. The injuries reported were discussed while soliciting options on how to avoid similar incidents. Suggestions ranged from not wearing gloves so a finger could not get pulled into the opening to a discussion about a more expensive German-made tool that came with the opening closed by design. The designed opening allowed you to put a tool in but not a finger. The local dealer made several of these tools available that were tested in a shop setting. No concerns were noted, and the users loved the tool.

Orbitalum RPG 1 Corded Tube Squaring Machine

The Decision and Response

To the firm's credit, the entire inventory of the unsafe tools was then replaced over a period of a few months. The change cost the company well over $300,000. Then something interesting happened. Within 30-days, numerous complaints came in that the guards were loose and falling from the machine. This appeared as unlikely as wheels coming off a new Mercedes. But the complaints were there, and word spread that the new, expensive German-made tools were crap.

This part of the story is most compelling. Over the next month, 21 fitters were observed using these tools. All were experts in the field, with most having over 20 years of experience with such tools.

First, here's a quick note. When shaving off the end of the tube to make the end flush per the manufacturer, you can remove, at the most, 0.06 mm of material at a time. This is the thickness of heavy aluminum foil. Armed with a micrometer and a piece of foil as an example, we headed out into the field. The first question was posed: "How much material are you removing at a time?" No one user knew that answer. The next thing we did was measure the thickness of the shards that they had been cutting. They ranged from 0.08 to 0.21 mm. The larger pieces felt like a piece of barbed wire.

We then examined the guards that had failed. Made of spring steel (like the rings on an engine's cylinder), every guard we examined that was fitting loose on the tool had been overstressed, apparently because it had been dislodged and replaced in the field. So, the question was, "Why?" The answer revealed an opportunity.

The Need for Training

What we learned is critical to share. A past method of pulling the chips out of the tool with a large opening was to use a pair of needle-nose pliers. When the new tools were used, the shaving (again the thickness of foil) could be pulled out using a small tool between the rings, like a small, bladed screwdriver. What we overlooked with the tool swap—the users were not shaving off small foil-sized pieces but barbed-wire-sized shavings as they had learned in the field. They then were pulling these through the guards of these fine-tuned machines with pliers—ruining that protection. Training on the correct use of the tool was as important as a safer tool.

The end result was the manufacturer sending in some experts for training those in the field. The guards then remained intact, and the fitter got to love these new, safe tools. And there was never another injury to a finger. We did not protect the user from the hazard—we eliminated what was hurting them.

The firm that was fielding the tool with the opening made design changes, and their tools now provide protection to the user, with the opening sealed in a similar fashion as below.


If you have made it to the end of this story, I leave you with three tips.

  • If people are getting injured from a tool, look at changing the tool. Call the manufacturer directly, and start a conversation. I feel that my call helped with producing a much safer device. I am in the midst of a similar case right now: an open chain on a very common scissor-lift that had hurt before but was unrecognized as a threat by the manufacturer—until I called their design manager.
  • Always involve the users before making a switch. They are experts in a field we often barely understand. Then ensure these "field professionals" are not bringing along the baggage of tradition. They may have never been taught the right way to use a tool. That's the lesson I learned.
  • Recognize the disconnect between users in the field and the firms that make their tools. When you are considering a similar intervention, there has to be an alliance for any successful outcome. The manufacturer lessens their risk from a claim with a safer tool. And the users stop getting hurt.

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