Drop into any construction supply store or home improvement center, and you're likely to find aisles full of tools labeled “ergonomic.” But what exactly does that mean for contractors? Simply put, ergonomics is the science of designing and producing tools, equipment, and other work-related implements that improve a worker's efficiency while reducing discomfort, fatigue, and risk of injury.
Ergonomically enhanced tools, as well as power tools, can include helpful features such as angled handles, padded handgrips, and nonslip coatings.
“Ergonomics is extremely important to our design considerations,” says Edwin Bender, group product manager cordless products for Bosch Tool Corp., Mount Prospect, Ill. “Users expect a tool to fit well in their hand because they use them everyday.”
However, no matter how impressive a tool's design may be, it's impossible for it to be universally ergonomic because human physiques and projects vary greatly from one to the next.
Whether you're shopping for ergonomic tools or just trying to select the right one from your existing collection, the key things to consider are whether or not the tool fits your hand; how well it suits the job being done; and whether or not it eases your work and prevents you from straining in ways that could lead to injury. “A hand tool is ergonomic to the degree that maximum comfort is experienced by the user,” says Brad Wheeler, product manager, cordless products for Makita USA, La Mirada, Calif. “It's all about the tool's weight, balance and grip. This is not easy to achieve, considering what an industrial power tool does and how it is used on the job.”
Regardless of how user-friendly a tool is built, the most important deciding factor in what makes a tool ergonomic is, ultimately, you. To make the decision process a little easier, here are some guidelines for choosing the right ergonomic tools for your body type and the job at hand.
- Because finger size and placement differs from person to person, avoid using tools with built-in finger grooves in the handle. If your fingers don't naturally align with the grooves, excessive pressure from the raised groove edges may cause discomfort and injury.
- Choose tools with handles that are covered in a soft material, such as foam or flexible plastic. Cushioned handles are not only comfortable for long hours of use, but they provide a much firmer grip and cut down on slippage. Hard-handled tools can be converted quickly and inexpensively by just adding a sleeve.
- Ensure tool handles are free from sharp edges and seams that might irritate or cut your hands.
- When selecting double-handed gripping and cutting tools, opt for those with spring-loaded handles that will return automatically to the open position.
- If you need to forcefully pinch or grip an object for some time, prevent muscle strain by switching from standard pliers to a clamp or grip.
- Only use tools that allow you to work with your wrist in a straight position.
- For tasks that require force, choose single handle tools with handle diameters that range from 1¼ to 2 inches. Larger handles allow fingers to wrap comfortably around the tool in a power grip, which prevents slippage and reduces stress and impact on hands, fingers, and wrists.
- For tasks that call for more precision and delicacy, opt for single-handle tools whose grips fall within the ¼ to ½ inch range. The smaller diameter handles make it easy to comfortably grip tools between the fingertips without overexerting fingers, knuckle joints, or hand muscles.
- Just as grip diameter affects work with single-handle tools, the grip span of double-handled tools either can make your job easier or cause hand fatigue. For maximum comfort and efficiency for tasks that require more force, choose tools with a maximum “open” grip span of 3½ inches, and a “closed” grip span no less than 2 inches across.
- Detailed jobs that involve grasping small parts are best done with double-handle tools whose grip spans range from no less than 1 inch (closed) to no more than 3 inches (open).
- When a work space is tight but the task at hand requires a good deal of force, opt for “power grip” tools (with handle diameters from 1¼ to 2 inches), which are grasped with the entire hand instead of just pinched between the fingertips. This type of grip lets you finish the job in far less time, with far less physical stress.
- Tool length should be matched to space constraints. Excessively long tools can force you to assume awkward work postures and wrist positions when trying to reach components in cramped areas. Instead, choose short-handled tools that give you the freedom to meet the target area directly, keeping your wrist straight.
- The palms of your hands are full of pressure-sensitive nerves and blood vessels, and in order to avoid damaging these during high-force tasks, it's important to make sure that the handles of your tools are long enough that their ends won't press into your palms. To measure, hold your hand with the palm up, fingers together, and thumb against the side of your hand. As long as the tool's handle is longer than the widest part of your hand (the span from the outer edge of your pinkie to the outer edge of your thumb), it's safe to use. The right choice can make a difficult job easy on the body, so it pays to choose wisely and ergonomically.
Paul Holstein is the cofounder and COO of CableOrganizer.com, an eTailer of cable, wire, and equipment management solutions. He may be reached through the company's Web site, www.cableorganizer.com