Some contractors buy as few tools as they possibly can while others consider tools an investment to enhance their productivity, so they embrace them,” said Jim Eisele, Greenlee Textron product manager.

To a large extent, tools are necessary to perform electrical jobs. New advances in tool development and biomechanics are resulting in a variety of labor-productivity improvements.

“Productivity means whether you make money on the job or you don't. It's tools that run all day with no problems. Once a tool quits, there's downtime, change time, truck time,” said Leigh Hammer, tool and vehicle manager at Ballard Companies Inc.

To get the most out of your tools, it is important to not only be aware of some of the newest advances in design and technology, but also how work techniques while using those tools can affect performance.

Recent trends in tool development reflect a multifaceted objective, said Mark Benning, Gardner Bender Senior Product Manager.

“Productivity improvements are directly captured by enhancing speed and ease of use while improving tool life through improved durability. You never sacrifice safety in order to gain speed,” Benning said.

Today's tool introductions feature technologies that increase performance and provide longer operating duration. They are multifunction tools with faster cycle times and better transitions. Similarly, their centers of gravity and other ergonomic features are designed to reduce the risk of fatigue, upper-body stress and injury to electricians.

Manufacturers are focusing on weight and balance and using lighter and stronger materials to produce highly advanced power tools.

Mechanization and integration have resulted in greater productivity in a relatively short time. As late as the mid-1990s, many contractors were still using several single-function tools and manually cutting cable and conduit. Now, battery-powered cable feeders have reduced a one-hour process performed by a handful of workers to a one-person, 15-minute job.

Time is money

Greenlee Textron's Eisele has seen an increase in the rate of new and innovative products.

“It's caused by the desire of electrical contractors to become more competitive. To do that, they need tools that allow them to set up and perform the job done quickly,” said Eisele.

Although the electrical profession is benefiting from tool-driven productivity gains, traditionally there has been little public data that quantifies productivity in terms of labor and costs savings related to tool usage.

“The biggest thing I've noticed over the last several years is that a lot of power tool manufacturers are going to battery-operated tools,” said Tony Davis, asset manager for Cleveland Electric Co., Atlanta.

While industry leaders point to the development of battery-operated tools as one of the biggest leaps in power tool technology, large-scale change has been more gradual until recently. Earlier this year, Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp. took the industry another step forward in the study and evolution of cordless tools.

Independent productivity research performed by Intertek ETL SEMKO formed the basis for recent launch of Milwaukee's V28 line of cordless power tools, including saws, hammer drills, impact wrenches, work lights and battery chargers. According to Milwaukee, the tools use the industry's first lithium-ion battery technology for high current-draw applications.

John Sara, Milwaukee cordless tool product manager, says the 28V technology allows more traditional heavy-duty tools to be cordless. It provides up to twice the run time and less weight than compared to nickel-cadmium (NiCad) and nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) 18V battery platforms.

“The average person changes an 18V battery two to three times a day. With up to two times the run time, that's going to be one less battery change a day,” said Sara.

Specific results of Intertek's productivity performance tests from the past nine years are available at www.v28power.com.

“We were very confident with our own in-house testing, but we knew there would be a lot of doubters out there. That's why we took the extra step to have third-party validation,” Sara said.

Doubling efficiency

Contractors are presented with many new options to make expensive tool purchases more cost-effective. Products that combine high operator productivity and comfort with high tool productivity for installations are in greater demand.

The concept of multipurpose tools prompted Greenlee Textron to develop the ECCX line of tools a few years ago. Equipped with changeable blade sets and adaptors, one tool is capable of cutting, crimping and driving knockout punches for wire and cable terminations.

“Cordless combo kits are the best value for a contractor. They can get several tools without having to buy additional cases, batteries and chargers that normally come with each tool,” said Sara.

Hammer, who coordinates tools at Ballard, recognizes there is a higher cost associated with a multipurpose tool. “But in the end it's a profitable and money-saving investment. Plus, you're putting one tool on a truck versus two,” Hammer said.

Ergonomics-including well-balanced tools with comfortable gripping surfaces-is one of the most cost-effective features in today's tool investments. Other features include actuating triggers with wide round edges, a low spring force for repetitive use and easy-to-read controls.

The role of ergonomics

Through the use of biomechanical models, laboratory simulations and field studies, the University of Wisconsin's Industrial Hand Tool and Ergonomics Research Consortium is currently developing guidelines for safe and productive use of hand tools and equipment.

People most commonly associate tool ergonomics with injuries caused by highly repetitive motions. Repetitive hand, arm and upper body stresses can cause cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs). However, tools engineered to significantly reduce CTDs help to increase user comfort and efficiency.

Ergonomics is seen by manufacturers and contractors as a valuable tool for increasing productivity as well, said Jeff Smagacz, former consultant and global ergonomist at Owens Corning.

“There's a perfect one-to-one correlation that every movement a person makes takes a certain amount of time,” said Smagacz. “Every 10 steps a person takes costs 7_ seconds. Sometimes the wasted time is not just the task itself, but it's actually transit time.”

Smagacz says research has shown that of the three primary risk factors that lead to the development of injury/illness-force, frequency and posture-posture is the risk factor with the highest potential to cause problems.

Smagacz says electricians perform several tasks associated with awkward postures. “They have a lot of far reaches, a lot of overhead work and work below their knee level,” said Smagacz.

The movements necessary to perform these functions, especially those 12 to 18 inches from the body, create greater risk for injury and contribute to lower productivity, he adds. The more significant the posture, the more cost in time to perform and the greater risk of injury.

“These are awkward positions like bending, excessive reaching, significantly twisting your neck or bending your wrists to grab parts or use tools,” says Smagacz.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Association, the most common parts of the body that electricians injure are the back followed by hands, fingers and knees.

“What you really want to see in the industry is manufacturers trying to design and develop tools to improve working positions and promote postures,” said Smagacz. EC

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached via e-mail at mcclung@lisco.com.