Safely handling slabs in the warehouse and jobsite
Two experienced fabricators and a well-versed representative from one of the industry’s largest distributors share their thoughts on a range of issues involving safety in the shop, around the warehouse and at the jobsite while handling slabs
• Jonathan Mitnick, Chair of the Marble Institute of America (MIA) Safety Committee; Vice President of CCS Stone, Inc., Moonachie, NJ
• Tony Malisani, former MIA President (2014); Owner, Malisani, Inc., Great Falls, MT
• Luis Maya, National Safety Promoter at MS International, Inc. (MSI), Orange, CA
What precautions do you take in your shop to ensure that slabs are handled correctly?
Mitnick: We have designated people that handle the slabs. Those people are specifically trained in handling and staging the material for the cutters as well as loading trucks and shipping containers. Our cutters are trained to move the slabs in the shop safely. Training comes in the form of regular safety meetings and experienced employees mentoring others. We hold safety meetings every couple of weeks. Sometimes we use Toolbox talks [from the MIA] on slab safety or hold safety discussions specific to our company. I conduct professional sessions in slab handling safety — I often draw information and subject matter from these sessions. We go over OSHA requirements for checking equipment. We have daily checklists for certain equipment, including forklifts, cranes and other handling devices. Our company follows the MIA guidelines and uses MIA references. These tools are available to everyone, including members and non-members. They are in DVD format, printed brochures or safety sessions held locally through a local MIA chapter or through seminars at trade shows such as Coverings. These tools provide a lot of helpful information about how to handle slabs, including operating slab lifting clamps properly and how to secure slabs safely.
Malisani: We are a specialty contractor that does work in ceramic tile, terrazzo and natural stone. Some of our stonework is in large dimensional stone and some is in countertops and furniture. In the shop, we try to take the lifting and manipulation of materials out of the hands of our employees and use mechanical means to handle the pieces. Forklifts, booms and cranes with vacuum lifters and slings are used daily for these tasks. Every new hire, regardless of specialty, is required to watch the MIA safe slab handling videos. At least one of our safety briefings every year deals with material handling. We also take them around in our facility to see where the equipment is located. We’re touching on safety all the time.
Maya: There are quite a few steps to this process. First and foremost, in order to handle our slabs, all of our workforce must complete required training and education to be considered a slab handler. Once this is completed, they must complete a very detailed, hands-on, 60-day training to understand the environment and the way the slabs react to handling on a day-to-day basis, such as using the correct clamps, wearing the correct Personal Protective Equipment and fall shadows. After this rigorous training, the employees then begin to handle the material with mentor supervision. During this process, all trainers will engrain in the employees’ minds the safety steps of the pre-inspection tasks, inspection of slabs before being handled and how to properly move all slabs. Refreshers are done through meetings and scheduled safety training.
What safety precautions do you take in handling the slabs when delivering them from the trucks to a shop?
Maya: All slabs are loaded into approved transport A-frames that are securely bolted and chained to the bed of the delivery truck to prevent the slab frames from moving. We encase all slabs being delivered with Z Cargo Nets (nylon nets) to prevent pieces of the slab from flying out if there is any breakage while transporting the slabs. Lastly, we secure the slabs with nylon straps to prevent them from falling. Once they arrive at the location, before anything happens, the drivers are trained to secure them with Z Safety Bars, which are a secondary protection device to prevent the slabs from tipping and crushing on the truck. This is our [MSI’s] patent safety feature that gives an employee handling the slabs prevention of them from tipping. The employee will also check his equipment, such as clamps, to make sure that they are in working condition and make sure that the equipment can handle that load [being delivered].
Are there certain standards that you have to follow?
Malisani: Yes. The equipment has to be inspected and of a size that is appropriate for the load being lifted. All of our vacuum lifters are designed for smooth or rough materials. If the individual suction cups have edges that are destroyed, roughed up or torn, they are taken out of service. Hooks, connection points and swivels also have to be checked periodically.
Maya: Yes, we need to follow the OSHA General Industry standards and also follow the MIA in which we sit on the committee that recommends above and beyond safety practices to the stone industry. Lastly, we follow strict MSI standards that we have set up. Our company safety logo is: “Safety First = Happy Family.”
Mitnick: We’re an MIA-accredited fabricator. As an accreditor fabricator, we have a responsibility to remain OSHA compliant and exercise proper safety protocol. Besides, having a safe, clean work environment encourages employees to be aware of their surroundings and be concerned for their safety as well as others. Overall, they’re happier and more productive, which benefits everyone.
How often do you check your equipment?
Mitnick:Daily, we go through a checklist. Every company must have a safety manual, which should include their safety checklists, inspection schedules and other safety items relating to their business. Whether they are fabricators, distributors or producers, there are different safety risks and training needs for each area of the industry. Every company should design that in their safety manual based on the individual specific needs of their business. Since our company uses cranes and forklifts daily, we need to monitor and inspect this equipment daily.
So, say you use a popular slab handling tool like nylon slings or ratchet straps. Nylon wears out over time — so that should be part of a company safety checklist — whether that needs to be done daily or weekly depends on the frequency that they’re being used — and that’s a management decision.
OSHA isn’t industry specific. It’s up to owners and managers to develop safety checklist schedules as well as an injury and illness prevention programs unique to their business. I think safety inspections of machinery and equipment should be daily — it’s a good way to start.
Malisani: Daily. Broken, cut or torn equipment is replaced right away. Twice a year we check the tools that are not used every day.
Maya:Employees check their equipment prior to the start of their shift every day and they do this through logging into our TeamMSI Safety Portal with iPads they carry. All company slab handlers and forklift drivers are assigned an iPad for daily checks and routine processes shortly after their training is completed. We also have periodic checks from our MSI mechanics, and we have outside vendors come to inspect and certify the equipment.
Do you hold meetings with your employees to make sure they are properly educated on how to handle slabs?
Mitnick: Yes. We utilize the MIA toolbox talks as a platform. There are a lot of subjects, which are all industry specific. Our guys can relate to it — slab handling safety. Any other safety issues that come up are also discussed at the time. It’s a nice format where everyone that attends can participate and learn. Each attendee signs in, the presenter signs in, then it gets filed after the meeting so there is proof that everyone in attendance is made aware. Every meeting is also done in English and Spanish. If you have any workers that don’t speak English, you have to explain it in a language they understand, too.
Our meetings are conducted every two weeks on a regular fixed schedule. It’s recommended to hold meetings at the same time so employees expect to be there, and managers get better attendance that way.
Malisani: Yes. All of the employees need to be trained on the equipment they will be using. Additionally, you have to keep track of that training. It is an OSHA requirement. Topics that are covered must be listed on a sign-in sheet. Everyone who is at the training has to sign in.
Maya: Yes. We have meetings/continual training for all slab handlers on a monthly basis. Additionally, all employees have access to a plethora of safety videos on our Safety Portal for daily training, should they want to see any demonstration of any task. Almost all our foremen and supervisors have been in the industry for a very long time, and their expertise helps our workforce in mentoring all of the employees.
Do you have any particular routines that you partake in?
Maya: Yes, I make time to do a daily walk through to say “hello” to my employees and make sure that I see that the processes that are put in place for handling slabs are being followed. I like to watch my employees from a distance as they prepare to handle the slabs and watch them move materials in a safe way and thank them for their hard work.
What is the MIA Safety Committee doing to make fabricators aware of the dangers of transporting slabs?
Mitnick:It’s been an active topic. We’ve been talking about it during the last couple of meetings we’ve had in trade shows — like TISE West and TISE East, and I’m sure it will come up in Coverings as well. We’ve been addressing concerns of several members — because we’re in a controlled environment in the shop — we can train men, control safety concerns and manage them. Some shops need to improve on some of that, though it’s easier to manage in a controlled situation. When it comes to transporting slabs, the trucking is often handled by a third party. You’re working with outside environmental or physical factors that may impact the safe transport of slabs; it could be wind, improper lashing to the truck or things that the trucker encounters after he leaves your facility.
Even though we can give guidance to a trucker, we’re not responsible for the slab once it’s loaded on the truck. It becomes a liability issue at that point. Once it’s on the truck, where does the fault lie if the trucker does something to the slab? Where does it begin and where does it end? It’s a topic that comes up in the committee a lot because it’s important to know when a trucker takes the material it travels safely to its destination. Once he drives away, he takes responsibility. It’s no longer a controlled situation in the shop. He is making the delivery and encountering things beyond his control like the people unloading the slabs — do they have the right equipment or the rightly trained staff? That responsibility then gets transferred. There are a lot of angles to address. When it comes to training, we like to educate our personnel using best practices and methods that we learn from the MIA. These methods are tried and true, from what’s being discussed in fabricator forums and other member’s experiences. This is what we share with our employees. We also like to get feedback from our employees about things that we may not recognize that they do, and that’s what we get from our meetings. We’re also asking them things — it’s not one-sided. They bring up subjects, which we discuss together, and we decide if it’s something that should be addressed further. It’s always about the feedback.
What do you think about liability issues once the slabs leave the shop?
Malisani: All materials and tools should be secured on the truck before it leaves the shop. We have insurance that covers accidents, but it is always better to avoid a problem, than to try to remedy it. Broken product always causes challenges in scheduling as well.
What is the importance of educating workers about properly handling materials/slabs on the jobsite, as well as once they’re loaded on the truck?
Malisani:Once materials go on the truck, there is a lot of opportunity for injury. Employees are encouraged to use lift gates, carts, ramps and lifters to minimize the amount of physical manipulation on the installations. There are new tools out there, carts, supports, lifting tools and slings that can help installers and make moving materials much safer for transport. When I started, we just had hard-wheeled skates. We had to both move and balance the tops at the same time. Now, you can use carts with pneumatics wheels that that can take the weight of a 1,000-pound top. Some of these carts hold the slab vertically and keep it balanced. Installers can focus on safely moving the materials into place. Installers have a lot of options now. These tools can be expensive, but are the best investment you could make.
Always make sure that you have an appropriate number of people for what you’re trying to do. When you have things like a massive island that needs installation, two people will not be enough. I do not know of any piece of equipment that will make up for not having enough people to do a job.
I just did an accreditation inspection in Utah and was impressed by the material handling that I witnessed. They too use the MIA safety resources.
It is also important to bring all transport tools that might be needed. Yesterday, at a countertop installation the crew was told not to use the driveway. There were a lot of rocks, bumps and incomplete landscaping on the only other route to the home. The crew had to use shovels to smooth this out in order to get the tops safely to the house. Here in the north, we often need to shovel snow to access jobsites. So, the safety mindset can’t stay in the shop, it has to be there all the way until you’re done — after the install is complete, whether it’s at a house or commercial jobsite.