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Materials handling: Making stone workshops healthier and safer pays off now and in the future

6 April 2018

Masonry workshops are becoming safer and healthier places to work thanks to improved materials handling such as these Dal Forno pillar cranes and vacuum lifts sold by D Zambelis.

In the March issue of Natural Stone Specialist magazine Robert Merry decried in his Merry Month column the risk to the health & safety of people working in the industry of man-handling the large pieces of stone that designers so love to include in their projects.

Some installations, especially bathrooms, can have such restricted access that it is not possible to use mechanical aids to lift the slabs into position. Often there is no alternative to brute force.

That puts the people installing the stone at risk. The risk is often laughed off – until someone gets hurt and the Health & Safety Executive begin an investigation. It can be especially painful for the employer if the injured party makes a compensation claim and the firm’s insurance company reasseses the risk to them of more claims being made in the future.

And it is not just in interiors. However stone is being used for whatever new build, repair & maintenance or conservation project, or as a memorial in a cemetery, there are inherent risks involved in moving heavy objects.

Apart from the risk of minor cuts and crushes or more serious injuries from a piece of heavy stone falling, there is the long-term risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

These might come on rapidly (such as injuries like those usually described as slipped discs) or they can develop over long periods and be particularly debilitating later in life. There is evidence that heavy manual labour, working in awkward postures and previous injuries are all risk factors in the development of MSDs.

While most of us probably revel in the occasional conspicuous injury, when it leads to permanent, life-changing debility it is not so funny. Neither is a permanent impairment in your 50s resulting from macho behaviour in your 20s.

It is not funny for a company to have the unexpected (albeit hopefully temporary) loss of key members of its team. Work-related injuries and new cases of industrial disease that led to the loss of 31million working days in 2016-’17 are estimated to have cost about £15billion.

For several years now Stone Federation Great Britain has required its members to complete an annual Health & Safety Questionnaire, because it recognises the value of being able to say its members are top companies in the industry with safe, healthy operations.

Stone Federation developed the questionnaire with its Health & Safety partners, Cardinus, a leading health, safety and risk management specialist that is offering online and on-site solutions for Federation members.

The data generated from the information provided by Stone Federation members is used by the Federation to illustrate that its members comply with legislation to the highest degree and have an excellent safety record. It also strengthens the Federation’s relationship with HSE.

And it is not just a question of lost revenue when something goes wrong. Reducing and improving the handling of materials in factories and on-site increases productivity, both directly by speeding up the processing of the stone and indirectly through more contented and engaged employees. The Director of one of the largest stone factories told NSS that weekly toolbox talks given by line managers n a whole variety of subjects was one of the best moves he had ever made because it kept everyone engaged, which had reduced waste, and stopped them ignoring problems when they saw them.

If anything does go wrong, there is no longer someone saying they could see that was going to happen. Now if they see something is going to go wrong, they remedy the problem before it does.

To help minimise the risks of moving materials through a workshop and installing it on site there are quite a lot of materials handling solutions to choose from. Most of the British machinery supply companies have a range on offer.

They include Omni Cubed, the American-made range sold throughout Europe by LPE Group; Weha, sold by Combined Masonry Supplies and Stone Equipment International; Deltatrack, Asinus, Bohle and others, including some own-branded products, from Waters Group; Aardwolf and DalForno from D Zambelis; Stone Slab, Hercules and others from Stonegate; Manzelli jib cranes and vacuum lifts from Roccia Machine and OnPoint Engineering. There are others and we apologise if we have left out your favourite.

We asked the suppliers for their comments about the material handling products they supply.

Ash Butler, who heads sales of the Omni Cubed range from LPE Group, says good posture and excellent technique trump brute strength in this industry every time, especially if you’re looking to stay fresh and nimble into your old age. And good handling equipment to take the strain makes a significant contribution.

He maintains “it’s only the most dependable, powerful and fit-for-purpose ones that have an Omni Cubed label on them” but says even if you don’t buy Omni Cubed, buy something.

“Start with the material handling equipment you can afford, whether it’s Omni Cubed or not. Remember, you can always upgrade later. Just get started and get safe now. And once you’ve got it – use it!

“It’s one thing not to own any of these tools yet; it’s a whole other level of backwards to have access to these bits of equipment but still choose not to use them. That’s just plain daft.”

At the top end of the Omni Cubed range is the Pro-Lift. “On the face of it, it’s expensive. What we’ve found is that those who can only see price tend not to become an Omni Cubed owner anyway, because as we all know, quality always asks a higher price. There’s always something that’s cheaper if you want to take that risk. But those who have a Pro-Lift have reported that it earns its keep. It starts paying for itself straight away because of the savings its making on site, right from day one.”

If the Pro-Lift is a bit expensive for you, there’s Omni Cubed’s Pro-Cart. The AT1 is for weights up to 340kg, the AT2 for carrying up to 450kg across the roughest terrain and up flights of stairs. “These carts are simple yet take all the strain out of moving material from the van to the property. Imagine doing a London job where you had to leave the van some distance from the site… You’d be glad of a decent transport cart then, wouldn’t you?”

Aqua Jaws Carry Vises are recommended with Pro-Lift or Pro-Cart. Ash says they should be a standard piece of kit for every stone fabricator. They clamp on to the material rather than relying on mechanics and gravity. They maintain a strong grip even on wet stone.

And if you’re still relying on manpower to lift materials, at least a pair of Aqua Jaws with an optional handle kit will let you get more hands on the lift.

Stonegate agrees that the importance of safety during stone handling cannot be understated – “without doubt, some of the most dangerous tasks you can undertake in a workshop are lifting, handling and moving large stone slabs. Stone can fissure or crack in unpredictable ways – natural stone can crack and shatter without giving any warning beforehand. A granite slab can weigh up to 500Kg and poses a serious risk of injury or death if not handled in the correct way, with the very best and safest equipment.”

Stonegate offers some simple rules, such as always transporting and storing stone on its edge, never laid flat, as stone slabs flex slightly and are at their stiffest (and safest) when vertical.

Stonegate believes its own-design Stone Slab Carry Clamps are some of the safest available. For moving slabs with a forklift, there is the Hercules Slab Lifting Clamp offered exclusively by Stonegate. Stone should be stored in specialist racks, such as the Stonegate Heavy-Duty Slab Rack constructed in galvanised steel and more than capable of coping with the tough environment of a stone workshop.

Like others, Stonegate strongly recommends using known best quality products, particularly with A-frames, working tables, trollies and dollies.

Lee Winduss, Purchasing Manager at Stonegate, says: “When we’re looking for products to supply our customers we put our focus on safety through build quality. After all, with activities as potentially dangerous as lifting and handling stone, it’s true that it’s only as safe as the equipment you’re using.”

Graham Hazell, Senior Director at Stonegate, added: “We’re going to continue on our mission of making our customers’ workshops safer by educating them on best practices and providing simply the very best products they’re going to find, coupled with industry-leading, value-added service.”

D Zambelis warns stone companies using grabs on forklifts, such as those from Aardwolf that Zambelis sells, to use them properly. She says there have been cases where forklift drivers have tried to lift two slabs at the same time and then seen them crash to the ground. D Zambelis are considering taking the larger size lifts off their product range so the temptation to lift two slabs is removed from stone companies.

It should also be noted that these lifts will not always hold slabs securely if the slabs have been waxed or if they are covered in frost.

D Zambelis also say there has been some concern lately about the authenticity or existence of certification (such as CE marking) that should accompany materials handling products. She advises buyers to demand to see the certificates.

A final word from Combined Masonry Supplies, which says it is doing well with the Weha handling products it sells, notably the WTR750 Monument Truck used by monumental masons, although Director Richard Chandler says more sophisticated trucks and equipment for lifting headstones, such as the WTR 500 with its elevating bed,  and portable gantry cranes are growing in popularity. He says Weha even has a snow plough blade in its range, although “we’ve missed the boat here… probably!”


Free tools to help you identify risks and prevent injuries

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has developed a number of tools to help employers analyse lifting, carrying and team handling activities in order to identify and avoid the risks associated with them.

Because stone is heavy and often used in large finished formats that make it awkward to manoeuvre into tight spaces onsite, the stone industry is particularly prone to the sort of ‘musculoskeletal disorders’ that can result from hard, repetitive work and manoeuvring large, heavy objects around obstacles, as well as fairly minor cuts, crushes and even broken bones in hands.

The term ‘musculoskeletal disorders’ (MSDs) covers any injury, damage or disorder of the joints or other tissues in the limbs or back. HSE says statistics from the Labour Force Survey indicate that MSDs account for more than a third of all work-related illnesses reported each year.

There is evidence, too, that heavy manual labour, working in awkward postures and previous injuries are all risk factors in the development of MSDs.

The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 require employers to manage risks.

  • Avoid hazardous manual handling operations so far as is reasonably practicable by avoiding as much movement as possible and by mechanising the process when movement can’t be avoided.
  • Make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risk of injury from any hazardous manual handling operations that cannot be avoided.
  • Reduce the risk of injury by using mechanical lifting equipment and aids such as trollies and dollies. And with something like a polished worktop that can be slippery, use lifting handles.

For guidance on identifying and reducing risks, you can use the tools produced by the HSE, available online as follows:

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