Do Better Tools Mean Less Injuries?
Setting devices and wire cut-out tools are often touted as devices that make installations safer for technicians but are they actually delivering on the promise?
The possibility of an auto glass technician getting hurt on the job is not a question of if but when and how bad. “I’ve been in this business for a long time and made mistakes that got me cut and I’ve also fallen off a semi-truck,” says Macenzie Curbow, a branch manager for Novus Glass in Kennewick, Wash. Curbow is a nationally-recognized AGSC Master Technician who won the gold medal for the Pilkington Clear Advantage Auto Glass Technician Competition at the 2019 Auto Glass WeekTM competition.
Cuts and falls from large vehicles are a real risk but the nagging problem stalking the techs pulling the glass is more mundane. “The majority of injuries we see here are back injuries,” says Curbow. “My first year and a half in, I tweaked my back and it’s never been quite the same since. It was from setting a semi-window by myself. A set-ting system would have come in handy.”
Getting Set Up
Tracking down safety stats as related to tool usage can be difficult in the U.S., but there are some interesting numbers from across the pond. Auto Windscreens is a large glass replacement business based in the UK.
In January, 2018 it began tracking data when half of their technicians began using a setting device to help them get the glass in and out of vehicles. According to the firm, “We have seen an impressive 43% reduction in windshield handling injuries. Additionally, we have seen days-off owing to back injuries reduce from 131 to 36 days when comparing data gathered from January to October in 2018 and 2019— a remarkable decrease of 73%.”
The “Fit Glass” system by Panther Pro was the device used in the experiment and retails for $3,995. The device was developed in the UK, and, according to company rep Mark Daniels, based in Maine, it’s already widely used overseas. “Auto Windscreens has installed over 100,000 windshields with these products,” he says. Daniels is targeting several market segments including the one most likely to need the help. “We’re looking to the guys who are older and smarter and are beginning to have neck or shoulder injuries.”
Anyone in the business knows that high-end setting devices and teams of two are often the exception, not the rule. “The normal circumstance would be a one-man set in today’s world,” says Gilbert Gutierrez, global education director of Equalizer Industries, in Round Rock Texas. “Twenty years ago, before anybody started doing these by themself, companies would send teams of two. The best installation is still a two-man set; it is safer for the individual.”
Although everybody wants improved safety the engine driving the train towards the increased use of setting devices are profits. “The best way to set glass is a two-man set, but business is trying to reduce labor costs,” says Bob Beranek, president, Auto Glass Consultants based in Sun Prairie, Wisc. “That means they’re going with a tool that may cost them anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 at first, but it’s cheaper than paying a salary and benefits.” Setting tools range from stick-styles that can be had for about a hundred dollars to the higher end devices from Panther Pro and its better known competitors.
Although setting devices get most of the attention on the cool tool pages, techs in the field point to the not quite as sexy wire tools as a great way to cut down on injuries at work. Curbow’s weapon of choice for bloodless and damage free glass removal is the WRD Orange Bat.
“If you’re using a cold knife and it slips the natural inclination is to immediately try to put it back in and you end up slamming into the side of the car,” he says. “If you learn how to use the wire tools well, you cut down a lot on your shoulder pain and your elbow pain, and fatigue.”
The Orange Bat, which uses nylon cord is a generation up from sometimes homemade systems fashioned from piano wire or guitar strings stretched between two blocks of wood. Gutierrez is seeing the same thing when it comes to knives and power saws versus cord. “Going away from hand tools like a cold knife or power tools, we noticed a lot of shoulder and lower back issues that are not there any-more,” he says.
One recurring theme with tool selection is speed. Obviously, the more glass that gets switched out the more revenue is generated. Some techs don’t want to upgrade to safer tools due to the perceived notion that they slow production times.
Beranek concedes using a wire tool may slow things down a bit. “The set-up is longer than a cold knife, but the wire tools get the glass out whole,” says Beranek. “Once you get it out there’s a limited amount of urethane to trim out, if any. When you get good at it, you’re almost as fast as a cold knife and a strip-out. There is so much benefit to a wire tool compared to a cold knife or power tools. Even the old timers are buying into the wire tools. It’s the removal tool of the future.”
Getting techs who have been in the business for a while to change their work habits is not so easy either—even if it reduces the risk of getting hurt. “Everybody has the ability to have the glass business be a very safe place to work,” says Curbow. “But a lot of guys out there don’t want to learn to use the new stuff. It’s one of the big problems in our industry. There are still guys who are doing what we call, ‘stuffing windows.’ That’s why we need more of the ‘why’ in addition to the ‘how’ in the training.”
In order to stem the flow of stub-born thinking, Beranek believes the industry’s training methods need to be reevaluated. “Glass is taught more often by an older guy you ride next to in a truck for a couple of weeks versus a true way of teaching ergonomic installation,” he says. “The only time the old timers will use the setting tool is when their back is already out, and they have no other option.”
Staying healthy long enough to get the experience needed to change glass on any car can be greatly enhanced with better tools. Bodies can be protected, and careers can be extended. “I used to think, I’m not going to be able to do this past the age of 45, but with these new tools I can see myself installing glass into my 60’s,” says Curbow.”
It’s not hard to imagine how windshield techs get hurt on the job, especially the techs doing mobile work. Gutierrez says, “A weight-lifter warms up before they lift but a glass technician doesn’t always have that leisure. Maybe the windshield only weighs 45 pounds, and you have to overextend your-self over the car, that amplifies the weight five or six times greater.”
Gutierrez estimates the average tech has three to five seconds of hover time to get the windshield lined up properly before setting it into place. He believes the cost of tools have to be weighed against down times due to injuries. “If you hurt yourself and you’re a one-man shop, is [not] buying a $4,000 tool worth being down a month and not being able to lift a windshield?”
SCOTT SOWERS is a contributing writer for AGRR magazine.
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