Volume 10, Issue 4 - July/August 2008

Pain in the Neck (or Arm, or Back)
Tools of the Trade Can Reduce Repetitive-Motion Injuries
by Brigid O’Leary 

When Mike Glodowski learned that there was nothing the doctors could do to ease the pain in his arms, he was further advised to give up his career as an auto glass technician.

“As a younger person I didn’t think I had any other talents, so I was bummed because I thought I had to end my job,” he says. “I was running my own shop, not just working for someone. It was pretty good income and missing that much income with kids was pretty huge.”

So rather than give up, give in and take a typical desk job, he first set his sights on making the work of an auto glass technician just a little bit easier. Glodowski is the inventor of the Power Advanced Cold Knife.

Knowing is Half the Battle
Even an equipped technician who is well-trained on a full arsenal of ergonomic tools can get hurt, especially if he (or she) doesn’t consciously make it a point to think about personal safety on every job.

“They’re not [thinking about it],” says Glodowski. “Not the young ones, anyway.” “New installers need to think about their futures. They need to think how to work safely. Everyone has shoulder or arm problems,” he adds. Almost as proof of this statement, Gilbert Gutierrez, vice president of sales with Equalizer Industries in Round Rock, Texas, and director of Equalizer Auto Glass Academy, offered himself as an example.

“I suffer from shoulder problems, hip problems, elbow problems, neck problems because you do it day in, day out without thinking about it and then suddenly you’re 50 and you realize something hurts,” he says. 

“[It’s a concern] every time I go into a job. We’re demanding a lot out of a tech, especially if they run by themselves, and the way the [car] designs have changed there’s an increased amount of stress or strain on a technician’s body to accomplish the job,” says Sorrels.

“Injury is a harsh word. There’s wear and tear. Everything sooner or later wears down. It’s like anything. Runners who run every day, [experience] wear and the tear on the knees, rotator cuff, hips, feet … they do wear because you’re out there. Even though you’re conditioned, you’re still wearing down the lubrication in the joints,” says Gutierrez. “I think maybe with today’s tools, the evolution of the new tools – power tools, setting devices – if [techs] were to use them every day in the areas where they should be, they can prolong themselves, but there’s still wear.” 

“The only thing that would be useful would be if the car designers would talk with techs or the safety and standard designers to find out what would be the best way to get the glass out— not just the windshield but the side and backlites, too, that are harder to get to,” says Dell Skluzak, owner of The PipeKnife Company.

But that remains the best-case-scenario.

To Glodwoski, it would help if the entire industry would rethink the way it does business and really aim for safe, quality work over a higher daily quantity of installations.

“The bottom line is, if they slow down and protect their body a little bit, work in safe ways, they’ll be in demand down the road. The sloppy, down-and-dirty employees will find themselves out of work when things get slow,” he says.

Until that happens, the responsibility for maintaining maximum work capacity is still a combination of awareness, training and the proper tools.

“People need to be aware of what they do. What it takes to do an installation or removal, to know they’re product well—either the product they use to install the glass, the urethanes, the tools they’re using. They need to know it well and the more knowledge they have, the smaller window of injury,” says Gutierrez.

To help close that window, it’s not unreasonable for techs to admit when they’re in a situation that could put them in jeopardy of sustaining an injury or exacerbating that inevitable wear and tear.

“That problem has always plagued our industry and we’ve always says this is not an old man’s job,” says Mario Saenz with Sacramento/Stockton Auto Glass in Stockton, Calif. 

Toolin’ Around
The Power Advanced Cold Knife, sold by The PipeKnife Company, was designed to eliminate the “death grip” techs may have on a cold knife when cutting out tight corners by transferring the force used in the cutting motion to a two-piece aluminum base, Skluzak. 

“Techs can use it with one hand; people who have used it have says it [helps] prevents tendonitis,” he says.

And while the Power Advanced Cold Knife is designed to help a technician do the job with less stress on the body, it—like many other ergonomic tools available to technicians today—also helps technicians be more efficient on the job. The less the technician has to put into cutting out the windshield and the more the technician can control the tool, the faster and more neatly the removal can be done. Add this to the fact that ergonomic tools will help prolong their working life and a few extra dollars invested in the right tools will pay for itself.

It’s not the only tool in the industry that helps keep technicians on the job, either.

“What Irwin did with the blue blade, from an ergonomic standpoint, makes it more comfortable for techs to cut the urethane, as it lets them get in on different angles,” says Skluzak. 

Ergonomic tools—those that help reduce injury by changing the way a person works and creating a more efficient and less stressful pattern of movement—are an important factor for those seeking longevity installing auto glass. 

“As the industry has evolved, we’re probably seeing less injuries, due to the fact that when you have better [safety equipment],” says Gutierrez.

Gutierrez, who has been in the industry for more than 30 years, quickly can list examples of how industry tools have made the job easier and safer for technicians.

“[We have] better safety gloves—either nitro gloves or cavalier gloves [and the] safety glasses we’re using today are 100 times better today then when we were using 25 years ago, if anyone was using them back then. I’ve been in the industry since ’77 and I’ll be honest, we didn’t use safety glasses. We should have, but it wasn’t important back then,” he says.

As with any industry, the tools needed to do the job have changed as the job itself has changed. Everyone interviewed for this article pointed out that if the way the car was built didn’t change, the car itself did.

“With the newer designs for the vehicles, the ability for a tech to injure [himself] during the install has increased. Fortunately, the number of tools that can help a tech do the job has increased as well,” says Carl Sorrels, a technician with Northwest Windshields in The Dalles, Ore. and two-time second place Auto Glass Technician Olympian. “We use as many pneumatic or power tools as we can. Anything to limit the amount of strain on the technician and we also utilize any and all assistance as far as setting the glass as we can.”

The industry has kept up with the need for ergonomic tools, too, creating a plethora of options for tools to help keep technicians employed longer.

“It seems like now we have a sub industry that supplies auto glass installers with tools; specialty tools that we didn’t have a choice of before. Before, it was the MAC or the CRL. If they didn’t have it, you were out of luck or you had to create your own,” says Saenz. “Power extraction tools and power caulking guns have made a tremendous difference.”

The most obvious tooling change has been the introduction of the power tools, a necessity that arose with the switch from butyl tape to urethanes for windshield installations.

“Urethanes have gotten a lot stronger, so the old methods of removing windshields had to evolve,” says Gutierrez. “Of course, I want to say [the] Equalizer [tool] and its introduction did make removals easier for technicians. Pipe Knife made techs lives easier, not having to use a hammer and chisel to remove windshields. You’ll hear techs talk about ‘drop kicking’ windshields—pushing out with feet—but that’s not an option any more. The option of power tools versus no power tools has reduced injuries—back, shoulders, necks, and lacerations. When you’re pushing or pulling glass if you break it, you’re going to get hurt.”

Other suppliers, too, have taken the steps to introduce tech-friendly tools that are meant to reduce strain on the body.

“We have anti-vibration gloves [and] wearing safety glasses is mandatory. We have tools such as the Equalizer— it’s great for cutting out the glass from the vehicles which can be demanding on your body as well … the LilBuddy is a big part of our program. Every employee has their own little buddy when they’re on the road,” says Paul Heinauer, president of Charleston, S.C.-based Glasspro.

LilBuddy and the AEGIS Solo® are two mechanisms that allow a single technician to set a windshield without assistance—an action that might otherwise put someone in line for a back injury.

Bad Form
In fact, when it comes to preventing back strain, assistance in the form of either another person or a device such as LilBuddy or Solo are recommended, at least by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). In his interview with AGRR magazine, Jamie Browning, installer with Team Acme in Henderson, Nev., referred to the findings of a 1998 NIOSH study conducted on Safelite installers, at the request of the company’s Cincinnati branch, and the study’s subsequent report. 

The report, Browning pointed out, used a mathematical equation to ascertain the lifting index (LI) of objects of different weights and declared that actions that require an LI of more than 1.0 “pose an increased risk for lifting-related [lower back pain] for some fraction of the workforce, and that lifting tasks with an LI > 3.0 pose an increased risk of LBP for many workers.” Installing a 25-pound windshield, according to the report, has an LI of 1.2 and a 50-pound windshield is nearly double that, with an LI of 2.3. (The report further states that “only 3 percent of the male worker population would have the shoulder strength needed to lift the 50 pound windshield, and only 51 percent of the male worker population would have the necessary elbow strength.”)

Though some aspects of the job have changed in the years since the study was conducted—most noticeably the availability of tools such as the LilBuddy and AEGIS Solo—the weight of the windshields, and in some cases the size of the vehicles, have not, leaving technicians still susceptible to work-related strains. 

“People forget that when a mobile guy is driving around installing windshields, especially in a cold climate … if you go off and start to push and pull … you get cold … a body builder is not going to clean-and-jerk 200 pounds cold. The techs can’t do this cold. They have to be warm. If they go from a warm vehicle and jump out into cold air to do stuff, they can get hurt. These new devices—Solo, LilBuddy and setting cups—hopefully will prevent that,” says Gutierrez.

Ergonomic assessments and studies such as that by NIOSH provide quantitative data that supports the need for proper installation form.

Such resources, Saenz says, ultimately “advised us on how to change things that we’ve always done. As far as giving us guidelines, it did tell us that ... the worst thing we did was reaching across with a big heavy windshield in front of us. We don’t have a choice, but it did open our eyes to the fact that we need to do more two-men installations so we make sure to send out two men on certain jobs.”

Training Day
Having two people on the job or using a set-assisting tool—especially those jobs that require a two-man set—or having the most ergonomically friendly tools available are just part of keeping technicians safe from the daily havoc that installing windshields can wreak on a body. Knowing how to use the tools available correctly and even knowing the right way to work with someone else to set a windshield is just as important.

“We issue our employees a fair amount of dollars in tools. Knowing [that] they use them correctly is gigantic. In my opinion, spending money and not showing someone how to use the tools would just be foolishness. It sends a bad message to everyone,” says Heinauer. 

Glasspro even has a special—and sophisticated, according to Heinauer—training program led by one of its installers, Jeff Olive, who was the 2005 Auto Glass Technician Olympics gold medalist. The program, Heinauer says, encompasses all the facets of on-the-job safety. 

“Training is such a big part of reducing warranties, delighting customers. That period of time is very important. We have a training program that everyone goes through and it’s constantly evolving. Even someone who joins the company with experience still has to go through it,” he adds.

Saenz looks at it from another point of view: it’s mentally challenging for a tech to do a job with a particular tool if he has not been properly taught how to use it or what their options are.

“We try to make it less stressful on all of our installers by making sure they are informed about all the tools that are available to them,” he says.

Most would agree that ensuring a tech knows how to use a tool is worth it.

“It might be cumbersome, it might take time to learn the right way to set the product up, but in the long run, if you take the time, you’re not going to have the injuries you do encounter if you don’t,” says Gutierrez.

But it does beg the question, who is responsible for making sure the techs know what they’re doing when handling a tool? Though it makes sense that employers make sure techs are trained to their satisfaction, suppliers often play an important role, too. They provide the most up-to-date information about how the tools work.

“I think as a supplier you’re obligated to tell the people who are buying your product the right way to use it. We’ve designed them and … some things are pretty simple and straight forward, but other things require [an explanation that there are] safe ways to do things and there are unsafe ways to do things,” says Skluzak. “So if there’s any question from users, I feel we’re obligated to make sure they understand the right way to use it.” 

Brigid O’Leary is a contributing writer for AGRR magazine.

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