The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has developed a new wrench aimed at preventing serious and costly injuries among gas-meter technicians.
In some cases, the injuries have required shoulder surgery and have resulted in up to $100,000 in medical bills and lost work days, according to the UWM researchers who designed the new wrench through the Consortium for Advanced Research in Gas Industries headquartered at the university.
The UWM Research Foundation has entered into a license agreement with Kenosha-based toolmaker Snap-on Inc. to commercialize and manufacture the specialty tool developed by faculty members Naira Campbell, Benjamin Church, and a student research team led by Patrick Dix, a graduate student in industrial engineering.
The wrench's design has a lot of potential to prevent injuries when technicians replace gas meters, and there could be ways to adapt it to other industries, said Andrew Lobo, director of product management and development in Snap-on's industrial tool division.
The company expects to have the wrench available for purchase in late 2014. It's still unknown how much the university or the gas industries consortium will benefit from the Snap-on agreement, but it meets a workplace need, according to Lobo and Campbell.
"We noticed that a significant percentage of injuries to the gas mechanics occurred when they were using wrenches," said Campbell, professor and chair of the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering.
Currently, technicians use a variety of tools when replacing gas meters, including adjustable pipe wrenches that sometimes slip when a lot of force is applied and result in serious shoulder injuries.
None of the tools is ideal for the job, according to Campbell.
"Custom wrenches don't slip, but they require the workers to carry multiple tools that contribute to the weight of the bag they carry," she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (http://bit.ly/1dFPDtY).
The new tool's longer handle and slightly larger hand grip, along with the fact that it's designed not to slip, all aid in its safety.
The tool also allows for the use of different wrench ends on one handle, eliminating the need to carry a heavy bag of specialty wrenches.
Campbell is a researcher in biomechanics and ergonomics. She lost her brother in a work-related accident and has since devoted her career to workplace issues.
"I realized, as a scientist and a researcher, that I had done nothing to prevent those types of injuries. So one day I just decided to make a difference for people and switch to applications and outreach. That's how I ended up in this field," Campbell said.
In this project, the researchers experimented with different wrench designs and materials to come up with an effective, lightweight tool. They looked at carbon-fiber materials, but it would have complicated the manufacturing process and added to the cost of the tool, said Church, an assistant professor in materials science.
The new tool was tested in the field by gas-meter technicians who offered feedback that helped improve the design. In the laboratory, researchers measured various things including how much muscle strength was required to operate the tool, the pressure on hands, and the likelihood of slippage.
"Our testing proved the advantages of this tool in comparison with others. Data was presented at scientific conferences and peer reviewers agreed with us," Campbell said.
There's a lot more to installing and removing gas meters than some people realize. It can be hard on your arms, back and legs, Lauren Allen, a meter technician says in a UW-Milwaukee video.
The consortium, made up of about 200 companies in the gas utility industry, focuses on worker safety and offers training in areas such as electric shock and near-misses in workplace accidents.
"I believe we have saved people from injuries and death," Campbell said.