I recently attended a MIA/OSHA presentation and asked the OSHA representative about controlling the jobsite safety environment. Surprisingly, he said in most homeowner situations, they have very little or no oversight. They do, however, have some control on new (from the ground up) construction. Keep in mind, from state to state, there may be differing regulations.
Over one-third of all workplace injuries are lifting related. Often, the only time we actually manually lift a large countertop stone without the mechanical help of a crane or forklift is when we finally arrive at the installation site. I remember back in the 1990s being able, if not downright entitled, to back the truck over the lawn (and sometimes garden) right up to the door. That is not the case today. Fortunately, we have had many advances where buggies and lifting clamps are concerned to make the trip from driveway to door and then cabinet easier and safer.
So, we are now in the driveway of a raised ranch with a 9-foot “L”-shaped counter with a 2-foot return and a sink cutout. Between the driveway and front door is a rather bumpy cobblestone walkway (installed by others). Before the door lies a six- or seven-step stairway leading to a 4-foot landing. Behind the door is another six- or seven-step stairway. At the top of the stairway, we have to jog about 2 feet to get through the pass way into the kitchen. Then, we have to spin and maneuver to be in the proper position to place the large “L”-shaped slab onto the cabinets.
This scenario is a challenge to even the most experienced installers. Our wheels, clamps and straight-edges will be helpful, but when we get to the stairs, it will be nothing but brute strength combined with finesse. I have been installing for many years, and came across this scene quite often. So how do we avoid an injury in this case?
Always check the route and clear any possible tripping hazard. It may sound obvious, but many of us do not take this simple precaution. A tricky path from truck to cabinet should always have one — if not two — well experienced installers involved. One or two extra bodies would not hurt either. A proper lifting and carrying technique is the key here. An experienced installer with an inexperienced helper still might result in injury. Don’t forget proper clothing, including footwear. Tie your shoes and wear a belt. It is easier to carry a small slab when both hands are on the stone and not having to hold up your pants with one hand.
Let’s throw the proverbial monkey wrench into this situation. We arrive at the raised ranch with the bumpy walkway, two sets of six or seven stairs, the 4-foot landing and the 2-foot jog at the top of the stairs to get into the kitchen. The homeowner now proclaims, “Please take off your shoes. The floors were just refinished.” Or, “Please put on these (slippery) booties.”
This floor refinishing information was not given at the time of template, nor was it foreseen. Proper foot traction is essential to this installation. As an installer, I now have to decide whether to cover the floors myself — possibly at my expense — or return to the shop and reschedule after the floors were appropriately protected. We may not complete this particular job today, but safety does come above completing a well done job, or in this case, a scratched floor.
Our carrying route and foot traction are not the only hazards we face. I was on my back inside the sink cabinet preparing to attach a stainless steel sink. Unbeknownst to me (because I did not do a thorough inspection), there was an uncapped live wire. I inadvertently (it definitely was not intentional) touched the wire to the copper piping. In an instant, there were sparks, snaps, crackles, pops and gushing water. My helper, fortunately experienced and quick thinking, after seeing I was not hurt, ran to the basement to shut off the water supply. I know, I should have checked. We can’t always count on the general contractor to make sure all these things are safe.
How many times do we have to scoop out a cabinet stile to accommodate a sink? I have cut through pipes and wires I did not know were there. The same applies with cutting sheetrock. Check before cutting. Many of us primarily think about the financial ramifications of such mistakes, but in the right or wrong scenario, we literally could get the shock of a lifetime.
Installation in foul weather is another safety issue. As a general practice, we inform all our customers — trade and homeowner — that if on our scheduled install date there is bad weather, we may have to reschedule. Wet stone and a wet truck increase the possibility of a fall-related injury. We should consider that wet soles of our safety appropriate shoes — combined with an already slippery interior floor — will create a slipping hazard. Also, carrying a step ladder on the truck, and using it, can prevent a pulled hamstring or a broken kneecap.
Of course, we need not forget all the regular shop safety requirements when we are on the jobsite. The use of eye, ear and respiratory protection applies in the homeowner’s house as well as (from the ground up) new construction. Keep a ground fault circuit interrupter on the truck. Do not always rely on the GFCI receptacle on the backsplash. From intact extension cords to making sure our epoxies and adhesives do not start a fire, these safety rules are just as important here as they are in our shops, even though they may not be monitored as closely.
Changes can happen at a jobsite between templating and installation. Many are out of our control, such as trash or dumpsters blocking our path, holes or ditches can appear, stairways disappear or walls are built. What we can control is how we adapt to the job environment. Simply checking for traffic obstacles, hidden wires or pipes, carrying a snow shovel to the job on those days after a storm, and communicating to our customer, homeowner or contractor what our needs are to ensure a safe environment, can make the difference between a trip to the emergency room and a comp claim, or everyone returning to the shop in one piece and another beautifully completed countertop installed.
“In ourselves our safety must be sought. By our own right hand it must be wrought.” — William Wordsworth