Ergonomic Material Handling for Utility Worker Safety in Telecom
Academically, ergonomics is the study of work and how it interacts with the human body. As an applied science, ergonomics involves matching the work to the worker. The goal is to eliminate discomfort and injury on the job.
Ergonomics plays an especially important role in the telecom industry, where utility workers face particular risks: working at height, handling heavy and awkward materials, overhead work, and more. Despite these hazards, the telecom industry has a lower rate of workplace injury and illness than the national average: In 2020, 1.7 per 100 workers in the telecom industry were injured enough to make it to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ records. In all industries together, 2.9 per 100 workers suffered recordable injuries and illnesses.
Note, however, that the BLS statistics approach the industry as a whole, factoring in not just line workers but also customer service representatives, electrical engineers, and telephone operators. So it’s hard to tell how many of those injuries occurred in the field. Besides, better than average isn’t the goal. When it comes to utility worker safety, the only acceptable injury rate is 0 — and material handling ergonomics is crucial to meeting this high standard.
Here’s an overview of ergonomic material handling in the telecom industry, particularly for cable installation specialists. We’ll start by discussing ergonomics generally, then offer a few material handling solutions for reducing the risk of workplace injury among frontline telecom line workers and electricians working in telecommunications.
The Role of Ergonomics in Telecom Safety
Ergonomics is central to creating a safe telecom working environment — so much so that the National Telecommunications Safety Panel (NTSP) created an Ergonomics Subcommittee to study the issue. That subcommittee published a 2007 report that lists 10 examples of what they call “work-related musculoskeletal disorder” (WMSD) risk factors.
Before we get into those, we should explain how ergonomics and WMSDs interact. A musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) is an injury to the body’s soft tissues, like muscles, joints, and nerves. Work-related MSDs are usually caused by the same cluster of workplace tasks, reflected in the NTSP Ergonomics Subcommittee’s examples of WMSD risk factors. These include:
- Holding the same posture for long stretches
- Twisting the body into awkward postures
- Repetitive motion; repeating the same task for long periods
- Overexertion, as in heavy lifting, gripping, pushing, or pulling
- Pressure on soft tissues, like grasping heavy tools
- Heavy vibration, often from using power tools or heavy equipment
This list is not exhaustive, but it illustrates the types of motions that increase the hazard of developing musculoskeletal disorders. While redesigning work to remove these hazards is the ideal solution, it’s not always possible. The good news is that many of these WMSD risk factors can be controlled with proper body mechanics.
Body Mechanics for Greater Ergonomic Benefits
The NTSP Ergonomics Subcommittee lists six “principles of good body mechanics,” which we’ve reorganized here to create an imperfect but serviceable acronym: TABLE B.
- Twisting the body should be avoided. Keep shoulders squared over hips.
- Arms should remain close to the body. According to the University of California, the ergonomic “power zone” for work is as close to the body as possible, at a height between mid-thigh and mid-chest.
- The Base of the body should be strong and stable. Place one foot slightly in front of the other, and maintain a shoulder-width stance.
- Legs should be used for movement and lifting; bend at hips and knees, not with the back.
- Evaluation of all workplace tasks should take place before any action. In short, as the NTSP puts it, “think before you act.”
- Back movements should maintain the natural spinal curve.
To maintain proper body mechanics, and even remove risk factors before they appear, employers should provide all line workers with appropriate material handling equipment. We’ll provide suggestions for each workplace task discussed below.
Improving Ergonomics for 7 Telecom Material Handling Tasks
Applied ergonomics can help to reduce WMSD risk factors in the telecom industry. Material handling can be particularly risky in this field, so below, we’ll confine our discussion to the material handling tasks common to cable installations. For tips on safely climbing poles, splicing cable, and more, see the NTSP’s report on ergonomics in the telecommunications industry.
1. Filling Cable Reels
Manually rotating cable reels is a repetitive task that places ongoing pressure on the soft tissues of the hands. To avoid these WMSD risk factors, use automated spool winding equipment to fill reels, instead. The Spool Winding Trolley from BHS uses an overhead rim drive to fill reels on jack stands, eliminating the step (and the risk) of removing and replacing cable reels prior to transport to the installation site. Choose the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) model to automate inventory tracking, job assignment, and more.
To safely fill reels in the field, use the highly portable Spooling Caddy. This adjustable-height rotator automates reel-loading in a compact unit, ideal for use at the job site.
2. Handling Cable Reels
Cable reels in the telecom industry can weigh hundreds — or even thousands — of pounds. Moving them manually creates WMSD risk factors like overexertion, twisting of the back or shoulders, and bending. Two employees should work together to handle larger reels. Better yet, provide reel-handling equipment at the jobsite.
With the right forklift attachments, lift trucks can safely lift and transport these essential telecom materials. The Overhead Reel Lifter fork attachment lifts reels via chain, with hooks attached to either end of a reel axle. For ground-level loading, choose the Reel Handler Attachment; simply remove the front reel stop to load and unload.
3. Pulling Multiple Cable Runs
Before pulling telecom cable, workers must reposition jack stands or cable reel payout equipment. That reintroduces the challenge of handling cable reels. For a turnkey solution to pulling multiple types of cable outdoors, provide workers with a Parallel Reel Payout Trailer. These truck-ready trailers come with rotating Parallel Reel Payouts attached. Each unit can hold multiple runs of cable, and the rotating assembling allows workers to direct them wherever there’s a need. Employees can position the trailer in a central location, then pull cable in multiple directions without moving reel stands.
4. Removing Trench Lids and Manhole Covers
Accessing subsurface utility trenches creates its own ergonomic risk. Manhole covers can weigh hundreds of pounds, and the simple hooks utility workers typically use to remove them still place a lot of stress on the back, shoulders, and arms. Given the location of trench lids, workers shouldn’t try to move them manually — and there’s a more ergonomic option than a hook.
Trench Lid Lifters roll on over-10-inch wheels, attach to trench lids with scissor pins, and allow a single operator to safely lift covers with lever force. A kickstand keeps lids elevated so workers don’t have to repeat the operation to replace them.
5. Handling Data Cable Indoors
Data cable reels for indoor installations may be smaller than heavy cable drums, but that size introduces a new set of ergonomic concerns: Workers may bend to lift them, placing stress on the lower back. Repeating this operation to carry a reel around an installation site compounds the risk.
Ideally, material handling equipment for Cat 5/Cat 6 spools would double as a payout solution. Thanks to its roller platform transport bed and four braking casters, that’s exactly what the Reel Taxi™ provides. This steel data cable cart-and-payout unit boasts a carrying capacity of 400 pounds on its compact frame, which is designed to travel through the narrow aisles of offices and data centers. It removes the risk factors of lifting, bending, and carrying data spools, while supporting more efficient installations.
6. Handling Gas Cylinders
Utility workers sometimes have to handle compressed gas cylinders, heavy objects that carry the risks of overexertion and awkward postures. For safer loading, unloading, and transportation for gas cylinders, ship them to the jobsite pre-loaded onto specialized carts. The Cylinder Transporter is an easy-rolling, steel cylinder cart that stores four, six, or even eight 15-inch cylinders (or smaller), depending on the model. Formed steel retainer bars lock cylinders safely into place during travel.
If you need to secure gas cylinders at the jobsite, choose the Cylinder Transporter Cage. This cart provides all the mobility of the Cylinder Transporter while keeping contents securely locked within an expanded steel, padlockable cage.
7. Transporting Electrical Materials Beyond Cable and Wire
Installation jobs in the telecom industry often involve more materials than we’ve discussed above: loose coils of wire, conduit, and heavy tools, just to name a few. Any of these materials can create ergonomic risks, from repetitive motion to heavy lifting — but specialized carts can help to limit the hazards.
Wire Coil Carts reduce the risk of transporting loose coils. Conduit Carrier Carts do the same for rigid conduit of all types, while Tilting Elevator Conduit Carts adjust loads to fit through narrow spaces. High Value Carts double as ergonomic transportation systems and secure jobsite storage for tools, electronics, and other valuables.
If you’re looking for ergonomic material handling equipment designed specifically for the electrical and telecom industries, explore the growing BHS collection of electrical material handling equipment.
After all, specialized material handling equipment doesn’t just help to improve utility worker safety. It also improves operational efficiency on every job, providing ergonomic benefits and a quick ROI in one. To discuss your telecom material handling program, reach out to the BHS Sales Team at 1.800.BHS.9500 today.