Q: Even though the topic is frequently addressed, we are still seeing too many accidents during material handling — in the shop and in the field.

1. How has material handling technology advanced over the years?

2. What are some of your “cardinal rules” when it comes to material handling?

3. How do you teach best practices in material handling, and how do you make sure they are enforced?

Dan Riccolo, Morris Granite, Morris, IL: Material handling is the biggest thief in our industry. It quietly snatches time away from us every day, and it makes us less productive and less profitable. Many people do not even think of material handling, because of antiquated ways of thinking — “We just get two guys and put it where we need it.” Of course, this is practical for some situations, but not so for many others. When a worker leaves his primary job to help another move a piece of stone, production stops. Put a watch on it, it is hardly ever less than 10 minutes or so until production really starts again. Even at three minutes each, if you move seven pieces a day, that is 21 minutes a day, 1.5 hours a week and 75 hours a year, per man. Plus every time they lift, they are far more prone to injury. Buy a crane and lifter for your shop. It will pay for itself in no time.

In the last few years, there has been some great material handling equipment readily available to the fabricator. This equipment ranges from vacuum lifters to a wide range of rolling carts, dollies, rails and accessories — all engineered to help the fabricator deal with the ever-increasing size of countertops being ordered these days.

Our number one rule of lifting is not really about lifting. Never lift a piece until you know where you are going to set it. Knowing where to set it will involve: how many people, their positions during the lift, the orientation that the piece needs to be set down and everyone’s role in the effort. It is dangerous to have a heavy piece in the air and then decide the details.

We utilize vacuum lifters and a variety of carts in the shop. In the field, we have two trucks with hydraulic knuckle boom cranes for very large heavy pieces. We also use Pro Dollies from Omni Cubed on almost every install.

The key to safe material handling is communication. Talk before the lift and be sure everyone is on the same page.

Material handling, like every facet of our business has a training regiment. Our training consists of the new hire shadowing an experienced employee and slowly integrating into doing the task solo. Obviously, all questions are answered, and practice time is scheduled for them during the first two weeks of employment.

Todd Luster, Tile Marble and Stone LLC, Shawnee, OK: Handling material in this business has definitely changed for the better over the years. It is one of those things that can quickly put a pain in your back and your wallet. Whether it is a simple slip while carrying a finished piece, or dropping of a slab, it doesn’t take long to figure out you have to pay attention and do things right to avoid injury to employees as well as the prized jewel going in a happy customer’s home. With all of the popularity of stone bringing more and more people into our industry — along with all those “been there, done that” guys in our industry — there are many more innovative and safer ways to move materials safely today as opposed to years back.

We used large-diameter ropes with large knots tied in the ends as slings and cantilevered the slab on timber back and forth from A-frames and rocked them onto a 2- x 6-foot dolly with an all-thread axle for years. We now use forklifts and jib cranes with vacuum lifters and clamps, pin racks as opposed to A-frames for storage, tables with wheels and panel carts in the shop to avoid having to pick up pieces as much as possible. We have several types of install carts and devices to assist in getting them off our ramped trailer at install, as well to include Weha A-frames with wheels, Omni Cubed carts, carry clamps, Omni Cubed rails, etc. At 20 pounds per square foot or more, if we can avoid picking it up and still doing it efficiently, we are going to do that. There are still times that we just have to grab it and go in certain type situations.

Cardinal rules for us would include communication as well as education. One of the first things we want employees to do before they grab a piece of stone and take off is proper handling. We talk them through the whole process and usually do some demonstrations, explaining to them the problems in handling the stone — without possibly doing damage to themselves or the stone. This includes making sure they communicate and know where they are headed with the stone, as well as simple things like not pulling against each other when carrying, or know which one is the “balance guy” and which one is the “drive guy.” Cell phone use in our shop is discouraged, but actually forbid while moving stone. The one thing that is important all of our employees know, NEVER try to stop a piece of stone once it starts to fall. Let it go. We do not want broken pieces of stone ever, but we will always take them over possible injury or death.

Mike Dean, The Top Shop Inc., London, Ontario, Canada: All new employees are trained on a one-hour material handling course and then one hour of actual practice. We have a document to sign and a handbook just for material handling. The number one rule here is if a piece of stone is falling, get out of the way

Tim Farr, Stoneworks of Augusta, Inc., Augusta, GA: I always tell my guys, “Be prepared to run if the slab starts going.” This is especially true when we are moving fragile materials like marble.

Rick George, Lonnie’s StoneCrafters, Rockford, IL:We have an overhead crane that we use for all material handling at the shop. We spend many hours training new employees on material handling so that they don’t hurt themselves, hurt others or damage stone. I teach people to always assume that the stone you are handling is going to break and fall, and if it does, you need to know where you are moving to get out of the way. If you assume this, you will never get your feet under the stone and get yourself in a bad position to get pinned by the stone. What we do every day can be very dangerous, and everyone needs to be aware of this every day, and so we all watch out for each other and help make sure our work area is safe and everyone is moving material properly. And as others have stated, we always teach to not try to stop a piece of stone from falling, as we can replace it, but we can’t replace them!
The biggest improvements in material handling I have seen have been jobsite carts to help move the heavy countertops safely from the trucks to the cabinets. Our installers love the Omni Pro Carts, as they help save our guys’ backs, and strength and can be used going up some steps, also. Island tops seem to be getting bigger every day, and at the jobsite, we will always send however many people it takes to get the countertop in safely and then send the extra guys back to the shop.

Kevin Pridemore, KPC Tile & Stone, Ozark, MO: Our employees are encouraged to minimize lifting by using carts, dollies or the forklift. For extra-large pieces, we use a custom dolly to get the stone off the trailer, into the house and onto the cabinets without ever having to lift them.
Our cardinal rules are: Think before moving any stone, and do not try to catch a falling slab.

Ken Lago, Granite Countertop Experts LLC, Newport News, VA: I do not think material handling technology has advanced over the years; what has gotten better is awareness of the dangers involved. Cranes, vacuum lifters, dollies, flip-tables, lifting straps, etc. have been around forever so it’s really only a matter of working smart and safely.
The cardinal rule in my shop is that if you cannot lift it with one hand, use the crane. Nobody drives my forklift unless they have been certified by me, and unloading slabs from delivery trucks is always done the same way and by the same people. If a new driver shows up he will be told how we do it here.
On jobsites, we use carry clamps on regular tops, and on heavy ones, we use wheels. Material handling is part of our employee safety meetings.

Joey Marcella, Mario & Son, Inc., Liberty Lake, WA: Material handling has advanced over the years in the form of motorized conveyors, automated flipping machines and automated warehouses — although the price of admission to this technology is out of reach for most fabricators, especially in the economic conditions of the last few years.
However, I believe that a suitable material handling solution to your business is just as important and should be given equal attention and funding as adding a new CNC, saw, etc.
At the minimum, a jib crane with a vacuum lifter strategically positioned within your shop should be an integral part of your business. Without a minimum amount of material handling equipment, it is only a matter of time before some sort of injury will surface.
Lastly, even with proper handling equipment and experienced employees, you must always be on guard against complacency. Even veteran employees need to be reminded not to get “too comfortable” around slabs.

Jean Marie Schneider, Custom Marble & Granite, Butler, PA: We train for material handling, and even my most seasoned guy needs reminders.

Joshua Hopkins, Albemarle Glass Company Inc., Albemarle, NC: The main rule is “always have an escape route.” We also train to stay no closer than an arm’s length away from the end of the slab and never beside it as long as it is suspended in the air.

Andy Ross, Rock Solid Surfaces, Kalamazoo, MI: Don’t get eclipsed by the fall shadow. We keep slabs as close to the ground as possible. While unloading trucks, the ground guy stays clear until the slab is near the ground. Then he can step in and control it. The guy on the truck should be controlling it until we get it to the lower/safer height. I’ve had to train a few drivers, as I’ve seen way too many people under full slabs of granite getting loaded or unloaded. That makes me really nervous.

Joe Durfee, American Floor Covering, Manchester, CT:One of the biggest problems that I see is truck drivers unloading two slabs at a time with a gripper. It seems as though I am always stopping them to tell them, “one at a time”. They don’t seem to get it through their heads that it causes problems. I have called the suppliers and was assured that they would have a meeting with their drivers, but it doesn’t seem to stick.
Does everyone else that unloads via boom truck run into this as well?

Dan Riccolo, Morris Granite, Morris, IL: All the time. Drivers are in a hurry. That is bad in this business.

Todd Luster, Tile Marble and Stone LLC, Shawnee, OK: The driver is just trying to make his day shorter. We do not allow it.

Jean Marie Schneider, Custom Marble & Granite, Butler, PA:We refuse loads if the driver starts unloading two at a time. My theory is that it will get expensive for the supplier if I refuse the load so maybe they will enforce the one-at-a-time rule.
I know back at the warehouses they are moving slabs two at time because the slabs already have the half-circle crack. If I see it, I either refuse it or have them break out the half-moon crack because I don’t want someone on my end to pick it up and the slab break. This is a huge problem for small fabricators like myself, because we have limited help, and sometimes everyone is out on an installation, and no one is there to watch or check as the slabs come off.
Another problem is driver inexperience. For a couple of years, our out-of-state suppliers had trouble keeping drivers, so every couple of weeks we had new drivers, and no one was training them. They were just sent out.

One company had a new driver that was so dangerous, I called every week and complained. I asked why he wasn’t trained and why he didn’t have a ride-along to teach him. The calls kept falling on deaf ears. I tried to teach him, and he was less than receptive to taking direction from me.
He probably dropped seven or more slabs over a couple of months. Once, he came over the top of the truck because he didn’t want to strap up and turn around. On his way over, he knocked the slab still on board, the slab cracked in the clamp, and the slab came down flat from about 15 feet with just a 6-inch piece still in the clamp. Another time, he hit the back of a bunch of slabs on an A-rack, sending them falling forward like dominoes.
Over several months, his slab handling skills improved while at our facility, but I heard he had some dangerous habits at other fabricators’ facilities. He was killed when the slab truck rolled over.

Every time slabs are moved in our shop, the radio is turned off, no one is permitted to talk to the fork truck operator or handler, and I often watch to be an extra set of eyes — plus it allows me to get after them if I see anyone getting lax in procedure. This is a topic we discuss often as a company at our meetings.