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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters



Safeguard Magazine

Old parts, new ideas

A Hastings company used second-hand parts and some ingenuity to come up with the winning device in this year’s award for best design. JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM reports.

“If you can’t pull out a fence post with one hand, you shouldn’t be doing it.”

That’s the advice health, safety and environment manager Sergai Davis gives his teams at Hastings-based property maintenance company Prestige Ltd. And, thanks to an ingenious piece of equipment, designed and assembled in-house, he’s absolutely right.

Prestige started life some 20 years ago as a small family business, carrying out maintenance work on Housing New Zealand properties. Over the years it steadily picked up more work from the state housing provider, so by the time Davis joined the company in mid-2014 it was responsible for more than 9000 rental units in an area between the East Coast, Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay and Manawatu.

But if business was booming, so were the company’s LTI rates.

“The lost time hours were in the thousands for just over 200 staff,” Davis says. “When I analysed the figures I found it was caused by a combination of the type of work we were doing and the age of the guys, most of whom tended to be between 40 and mid-60s.”

After years of manual labour many workers were carrying pre-existing back, shoulder and forearm injuries, and the heavy work associated with a HNZ initiative to replace boundary fences and gates was exacerbating the problem.

“The year I joined we were contracted to replace 500 driveway gates and 210 boundary fences, each with about 15 posts, as well as removing and replacing damaged letter boxes, clothes lines and fence posts as the need arose.

“By the end of the year we’d had at least eight strain injuries directly related to post removal. That was when I started thinking there must be a better way.”

SECRET WEAPON

Fortunately Prestige had a secret weapon: Ron Norris, a self-described jack-of-all-trades with an amazing ability to devise handy gadgets out of whatever is available. A trained engineer, he’d been employed by the company a few years previously to repair equipment and keep its vehicles on the road, but by the time Davis came on board he had forged a reputation as a talented inventor.

“Ron has a knack of solving things,” Davis says. “I told him the problem and he told me he’d think about it for a day or two and have an answer.”

The pair agreed they needed a device that could be attached to a post, allowing it to be winched clear of the ground without snapping. It had to be light enough for one person to use, but robust enough to cope with the workload.

An internet search found some overseas designs that lifted posts using hydraulic rams or large cantilevers, but Davis and Norris dismissed them as too cumbersome and complex.

“If you can’t just grab something off the back of the truck and use it easily it won’t be used,” Norris says. “That’s why, when I’m making something, I always start by envisioning how it would be to use it.

“Sometimes the first thing I try isn’t quite right, so I chuck it out and start again, but once I start putting things together the ideas just come and it all seems to come together quite easily.”

Within a few weeks Norris had settled on a concept and built a prototype from second-hand parts, keeping costs low in case the design was unsuccessful. He fitted a 500kg chain winch and snap-lock hook to a box section frame, and added the handle from an old lawn mower. As an extra touch the frame was mounted on wheels, so the extracted posts could be easily loaded onto a trailer.

When Norris and Davis went to a Hastings worksite to test the design, audience scepticism quickly turned to astonishment.

“When we turned up everyone just sort of stood back and looked at it,” Davis recalls. “But they were really amazed when we used it because, not only did the post come straight out, but it had been concreted into a footpath and we brought up half of that as well.”

The pair realised they were onto a winner, and put the Mark 1 post puller straight to work.

“It lasted about 10 weeks before the winch got smashed,” Davis laughs. “And it was a good quality winch too.”

The Mark 2 was more robust and did good service for several months, but it was the introduction of the Mark 3 model in mid-2015 that saw the idea really take off – with a grunty 1.5 tonne winch, reinforced leg stays, and a safety chain to prevent kick-back if a post breaks during removal.

“We did a bit of a roadshow, visiting the branches to show people how to use it, and they got it straight away,” Davis says. “It was like someone had flicked on a light – you could see them thinking: ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’

NO INJURIES, MORE PRODUCTIVE

These days Prestige has five post-pullers in constant use, and another two have been sold to contractors, who begged to be allowed to buy one as soon as they saw them in operation.

“At first our guys said they were only good for wooden posts, but we modified the design so you can wrap the chain around a metal post and the initial force will make it bite into the surface,” Davis says. “There is pretty much nothing you can’t pull out of the ground with them now. You’re only limited by the amount of force you can put through the winch.”

The pair initially feared that the 1.5 tonne winch would be over-engineering the device, but user feedback has been positive.

“The guys say it’s a really good balance because they don’t have to strain to operate it. With the 500kg winch it was a bit of an effort, but it’s a one-handed job now – and if you can’t do it with one hand you shouldn’t be doing it.”

Since the post-pullers were introduced there have been no recordable injuries associated with post removal, and the time savings have been huge.

“It can take 30 minutes to dig out a post that’s been concreted in, but the other day one of our guys did 20 posts in two hours.

“They come out nice and cleanly too, leaving you with a post hole that you can put a new post straight into. When you dig them out you end up with a big hole that takes twice as much concrete.”

OTHER INVENTIONS

As word of the initiative spread, Norris was approached by the local wine industry, asking if he could produce a modified version for use on vineyard strainers that had snapped off close to ground level.

“When tractors drive around the vineyards they tend to hit strainers and break them,” Davis says. “These strainers are often driven a metre or more into the soil, so it’s very hard to get them out without causing major disruption.”

Norris believes he’s solved the problem, however, by producing a set of jaws – what he describes as a bear trap – that grips the top of the strainer, allowing the winch to pull it out cleanly.

Alongside the post-puller, several of Norris’s other designs are also in regular use at Prestige. Stove-lifters – modified trolleys with a movable platform that can be raised to the height of a truck deck – allow easy transportation of large appliances, while carpet-lifters – jacks fitted with sloping blades so they can raise a carpet roll high enough for a trolley to be placed under each end – mean shifting carpet rolls can now be done by one person.

“The thing for me,” Norris says, “is not how to invent, but what to invent. When you know what someone wants, it’s not hard to get it done.”

He’s particularly pleased with the success of the post-puller, however.

“The blokes have said to me: ‘Oh man, why didn’t we have these years ago?’ I’ve seen blokes here who have had to walk off the job – finished – because of back injuries, so it’s good to make things easier for them.”

Perhaps unexpectedly, Davis says the device has also boosted the organisation’s health and safety culture.

“It’s been a real catalyst for change,” he says. “All of a sudden people have got that safety is important for the functionality of the business – it’s not just about compliance.

“Now staff are coming forward with their own ideas for tools that we can develop.

“It’s really exciting to have this level of conversation and collaboration – and wonderful that we have Ron’s skills to support it.

JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM

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