5 Ways To Make Working On Pools Safer
Workplace safety is something that I am passionate about. I have previously written about Developing a culture of safety in the workplace as it relates to the pool and spa industry which was published in Pool & Spa Marketing Magazine in March of 2016. Before I was "Swimming Pool Steve" I used to be known as "Safety Steve". After a lifetime of working in the construction industry I have developed a thick skin for going against the grain on the jobsite. I know the job needs to get done, but I am not willing to let safety take a back seat to "getting the job done" and I am willing to go-to-the-wall so to speak when it comes to fighting for workplace safety rights. If the job can not be done safely then the job can not be done until a safer method is devised. If this costs more money somewhere down the line then this is simply the cost of doing business.
There is nothing more important than going home safe and healthy at the end of the work day. No job is more important than this.
Right. Of course. Work safe. Everybody wants the same thing right? In reality, not so much. It is easy to say to your workers that they should work safely. It is when money is on the line that is gets harder for management to back up this statement. I can not even remember how many times I have been asked, or witnessed first hand, someone doing something expressly dangerous for the sake of "getting the job done". Sometimes this is from ignorance of safe working practices, and sometimes it is simply willful ignorance. Most of the time, at least in my experience, the pressure to do something that you should not comes from the older generation of workers. These are the guys who have doing the same job the same way for many decades. These are the workers who are complacent to the dangers of the workplace from years of doing the same jobs and working with the same tools. Also, due to their experience, these are often the owners and managers. This mindset drives me crazy. Just because you have done something one way lots of times does not make it safe, or the best way to necessarily to a job.
I am very outspoken when it comes to being safe and protecting my best interests on a construction site. Most people are not as willing to engage in conflict to defend safe working conditions. Most workers, especially younger workers, will follow the direction of their management even when they know they are not following basic safety protocol.
It is hard to tell your boss that you won't do your job because you feel it's dangerous. It is even harder to tell him that he can't do his job either since he is not doing it safely. This is an argument that I have had far too many times. It is seldom received well, but here is the end-all be-all of the situation: You getting maimed or killed at work still ruins my day.
Workplace safety applies to everyone. If people around you are working in an unsafe way then bring this to their attention and the attention of the management for the jobsite. Most of the time your concerns will be disregarded and it is up to you to take a stand and refuse to settle for anything less than a safe workplace. You might need to go over your managers head. You might need to refuse work or even resign from your job if need be. You might need to even contact OSHA to report continued disregard for workplace safety. You will not make any friends doing this but you may save someones life...even the lives of the people who are the most mad at you for speaking up. So be it. I made my decision long ago and every worker needs to decide for themselves just how far they are willing to go in the name of "getting the job done". I chose safety as a priority early in my career. It still was not enough to prevent me from getting injured at work. I am 40 and I walk with a cane most days, and I had more than one near-death accident while at work during my career. You are not immune to safety and even being conscious of safety is not enough to protect you. Accidents can, and do, happen. Additionally you need to become informed about the potential dangers with the materials, tools and processes that you work with often. Here are some common concerns for people working within the pool and spa industry:
Using GFI Plugs For All Tools
This, over the years, was the number one safety infraction that I encountered while working on and building swimming pools. Every time that you plug in a tool on a jobsite you need to make sure that you have GFI protection. A GFI is a ground fault circuit interrupt that will turn off the electricity should a current be detected on the ground wire of the circuit. Since the current should only travel on the hot wire and the neutral wire, and current in the ground wire indicates an electrical fault to ground. Unlike a regular household electrical breaker, a GFI is extremely sensitive. Without a GFI there is significant risk for electrocution should something happen, or should the tool have a fault of some kind. Working in and around swimming pools with non-GFI protected power sources is a completely unnecessary risk and something that is completely and easily preventable.
Every time you plug in a tool you should use a GFI tester first to see if the circuit is protected. This sounds simple enough however when you "test" a GFI circuit it will trip out the GFI. If you are plugged directly into a GFI receptacle then you just push the reset button. If the GFI is located remotely then you will have tripped out the breaker but need to locate the original GFI that your plug is being fed from in order to reset it. On a jobsite this equals time and money. Sometimes you will trip the breaker and not be able to reset it since you can't locate the GFI. This is lost productivity but in my opinion the price of working safely on swimming pools.
If it is not protected then plug in a GFI adapter so the line you are using is protected. Every truck should have at least one of these adapters so you are never forced into using non-GFI protected power sources for working around the pool. You can not simply plug this into any outlet however since if the circuit already has GFI protection, adding a second GFI breaker can cause the fault protection to not function. This is why you must test for GFI protection before plugging in this adapter.
The thing about GFI protection is it does not work if you leave the GFI adapter sitting on the truck. It only works if you test, plug it in, and use it. Complacent workers will say that they don't need GFI protection. And to a certain degree they are right since they haven't needed it in the past. But that is the thing...you don't need it right up until the point that you do. I know of a pool builder who was electrocuted when he dropped his skill saw into a puddle. He did not die, but he never worked again - on pools or anything else.
Frayed Or Damaged Electrical Cords
Electrical dangers exist on swimming pool jobsites over and above just GFI protection. Perhaps taking electrical theory in college or pursuing an electrical apprenticeship made me more aware of potential electrical dangers on the jobsite. More likely it was some very sketchy experiences I have had personally working with electricity such as my very first day as an electrical apprentice when I was sent, by myself, to repair a live 600 Volt, 200 Amp three phase switch gear that was falling off of a brick wall.
There was no way to power down the switch gear and so I was instructed to drill and mount new hardware in the decaying brick wall with the switch gear still live. This involves using a hammer drill, wedge anchors and a 3/8" ratchet with a few extensions on it. This is, without a doubt, the stupidest thing that I did in my working career. I kind of knew better, in that I had no business doing this work, but my "boss" sent me to do the work. But it was my very first day on the job, and my first day working out of college, and I very much like being a reliable person who can get things done. I still think about this experience to this day. I wish that younger me knew what I know now about electricity and safe working conditions. If I knew then what I know now I am quite certain that I would have installed my boot up my new bosses ass. It is actually surprising that I was not killed or injured doing this job. I was very careful to be sure, and very lucky. This is the when I realized that other people do not care about you at work. You need to decide for yourself what is safe. From that day I am very fast to speak up when someone, anyone, does something dangerous on a jobsite.
Which brings me to the point of using frayed, damaged or altered electrical cords for working in and around swimming pools - don't do it. A GFI is one form of protection but if you have removed the ground pin from your cord end then you no longer have GFI protection. Add to this the frequency in which people use electrical cords with cuts or frays in the insulation and you have a recipe for disaster. When a ground pin breaks on a cord end, then that means this electrical cord is broken, requires service, and should not be used again until you have fixed it. This is of course easier said than done. Extension cords get used and abused and tend to get damaged quickly and often. If you work in the pool industry, go take a look at the electrical cords you have. How many of them have deficiencies? You can always put new cord ends onto old extension cords to make them safe again. If you get fast with doing this then you don't even need to have much down time when you find a cord that needs repair. Keep some cord ends right on your truck and when you encounter a damaged cord or broken ground pin on your cord end then change it right there on the spot.
Broken Guards On Tools
Safety shield and guards on angle grinders and circular saws often get broken with abuse. Also, for many tasks, having the guard in place prevents you from being able to work effectively. For these reasons guards and safety shields are often removed from tools and equipment used for building pools. I am a technical person so the argument about needing to use the tool in a certain capacity is not lost on me. There are definitely times when taking the guard off would make the job a lot easier, and most especially, faster. My challenge to you is to find a better way. Find a better tool, or a different process, that allows you to get the job done in an effective and time efficient way. If you make operating a tool outside of safe practices a regular part of your job then it is very possible that one day you will eventually experience an accident. It would seem to me that it is worth the effort to invest in better and safer ways to get things done.
I am not better than you. I also did things like remove the guard on my angle grinder to better facilitate flush cutting. I was always extra careful when working with a grinder with no safety guard. This is the same logic that all people use. "I will just be really careful". The problem is that sometimes being careful is not enough. I once had a cutting disc explosively disintegrate in my hand without warning when spinning at over 10,000 RPM. I always check my discs for cracks or imperfections before using them but in this case the defect must have been hidden or very slight. It just so happens that this grinder still had the guard in place. The violence in which the disc came apart was both shocking and alarming. It actually bent the steel guard when it broke which was right next to where my fingers were. As a lifelong musician and guitar player the thought of losing my fingers is the thing nightmares are made of. I got lucky. Tools break and accidents happen. Take every safety precaution that you can and leave guards in place and working properly on all of your tools.
Grinding Galvanized Steel
The grinding of galvanized steel walls is one of my biggest concerns for long term health of swimming pool workers. This is a process that is specific to vinyl pool wall rust remediation...which is something that the industry as a whole is seeing more and more of. Arguably the increase in electronic chorine generators in steel walled vinyl pools has resulted in an increase in finding pools with widespread wall rusting issues. In the first 10 years of my career I can hardly remember a vinyl pool that had anything approaching serious rust. In my final 10 years of my career I would encounter steel wall vinyl pools with heavy, pitted rust covering 100% of the wall surfaces every season - multiple times. I do not need confirmation to know that this is a growing problem and one that has a simple, but potentially dangerous remediation process.
The standard process with most pool companies who remove a liner to encounter extensive wall rust is to grind away the rust, expose some decent steel, and then paint with (hopefully) a cold galvanizing compound. My concern is with the grinding process for the pool walls. Pool walls are made from galvanized steel. The concern in that the zinc coating on galvanized steel can boil and vaporize at extreme temperatures like those experienced with welding which produces zinc oxide gas. Any welder can tell you about the dangers of "metal fume fever" but the average pool company knows little or nothing about this potential workplace hazard. The problem is that zinc boils to a vapor at over 1600 degrees Fahrenheit (900 C) and this vapor can certainly make you sick. Most galvanize poisoning will result in short term flu like symptoms which you can apparently develop a tolerance for that will go away in as little as a weekend, which results in most galvanize poisoning happening on Mondays. There is no current listed long term exposure concerns from OSHA however a vaporized metal that can make you sick like the flu could easily one day be connected to more serious illnesses.
Some might say that the temperatures that are developed during grinding are not high enough to cause the zinc to boil off to vapor. This is easy enough to determine since there is a standardized color chart for matching metal color and temperature. Pretty much all metals follow the same color / temp scale which you can see here in the heated metal temperature color chart. The bottom line is that when you grind steel you will see all sorts of colors...one of those colors is white which the sparks from a grinder often are. This means that parts of the metal you are grinding are exceeding 2000 degrees Fahrenheit (1100 C) and this is most certainly enough to cause the zinc to boil. If you are not wearing proper safety equipment when grinding galvanized steel pool walls then you are very likely making yourself sick both in the short term and potentially in the long term. You need to learn about PPE (personal protection equipment) as well as ventilator classes. And you also need to drink some milk. Seriously, google it. Milk helps to prevent galvanize poisoning. Welders know this, and if your job includes grinding galvanized steel pool walls then you need to know it also.
The first thing you need, at minimum, is a reusable respirator that you can buy and use specific cartridges for. This should be the absolute minimum level of breathing protection that you should wear while grinding galvanized steel. A paper mask or disposable dust mask is not sufficient since you need the mask to fit securely to your face while you reach, stretch and move while grinding the pool.
The common 3M 2091 particulate filter was recommended when I completed the 3M respirator selector tool. I am not a doctor and I can not tell you with certainty which respirators will provide you the protection that you need. Please feel free to continue doing your own research and find the best PPE you can find to suit the types of work that you do.
The grinding of galvanized steel walls and protecting yourself from zinc fumes are only one of many chemical and environmental concerns for workers in the pool industry. It just so happens to be one that I find workers are not familiar with. The truth is that solvent welding PVC is a much bigger concern as far more workers are exposed to MEK and other chemical fumes from solvent welding than the comparably rare grinding of galvanized steel walls. Or how about repeated working contact with chlorine, or ozone, or any one of a dozen other chemicals? How informed are you about which respirators you need to use - or better yet are you 100% dedicated to using safety glasses, chemical resistant gloves and a respirator? Even if you find that you have a hearty constitution, and the chemicals and fumes don't really bother you, you can still be developing allergies to some of the things you are exposed to. I, for example, have developed a sensitivity to chlorine (and also nickel). After years of working contact with chlorine something changed and now when I work with chlorine I develop rashes and blisters on my hands. Not fun. Perhaps if I had taken it more seriously when handling chemical products I could have avoided this. Certainly nobody mentioned to me 25 years ago that you can develop long term allergies to chemicals that you work with regularly. I would hope there is better safety, training and education for young workers these days, but just in case there is not you need to make sure to protect yourself from chemicals - even if they don't seem to bother you to handle them.
Heavy Lifting & Working While Injured
During the busy season the pressure on swimming pool industry employees to work long hours is immense. Time is money in seasonal industries like swimming pools and you do not always have the option to take breaks when you need them or take time off when you are sick or injured. This is the nature of the beast and the reality of working in this unique and demanding industry. Still, there is something to be said for working smarter as opposed to just harder.
If you are sick, or injured, you may still receive pressure to work. If you are the owner of the company then staying at home may simply not be an option for you no matter how badly you are hurting. I spent many, many years ignoring the strong warnings that my body was giving me. I would work well past the point of injury and I can distinctly remembering finishing concrete on days when I could not stand upright any longer due to back pain. If I had taken more time to care for my body then I could have had a much longer working career and I would not likely be living with pain in the way that I do now. Much like the concept of "working safe" it is easy to say "be careful lifting things" or "try not to hurt your back" but in reality these sayings do little to actually protect you from injury or damage.
I was always told to ask for help when something heavy needed to be moved. Everything in the swimming pool industry is heavy, awkward or oversized - there are countless ways to hurt yourself lifting or carrying while working on pools. What I wish that I knew better when I was younger is that you are not as likely to hurt yourself lifting as you are to simply wear out your back. This is a fundamental difference that I did not appreciate fully until after years of back specialist appointments. You have a finite amount of lifting that you can do in your life. It is not about lifting one thing which is simply too heavy although this also can be a concern. The most common problem is that you will simply wear out your back. If you spend your life working a manual labor job, especially one as heavy as swimming pool construction, you can well anticipate back pain later in your life. If you work like an idiot, like I did, then you can end up barely able to move most days. Just because you can lift something doesn't mean that you should lift it. This is a huge difference and something that I hope someone else can learn from my mistakes.
If you intend to work in the pool and spa industry as a career then you need to adopt a long term approach to your health. Lifting heavy items is something that you should be wary of, and you need to know your limits. I have seen countless 18 year old greenhorns get thrown onto a wheelbarrow full of concrete that is way, WAY too heavy for them to handle safely. Despite what you might think there is also some talent and technique to running wheelbarrows that heavy and these young workers think they can just power through it. Some can. Many can't. Losing control of a wheelbarrow full of wet concrete even once is enough to hurt your back if you attempt to fight not to dump it once it starts to tip. The whole working culture of this kind of construction is flawed. If you get injured then you are pressured into doing the work anyway. If you weigh half as much as the guy standing next to you, you both still are given a full wheelbarrow of concrete to run. It is little wonder to me that this industry struggles to find and retain skilled workers. The ones that we didn't scare off we end up killing off.
Adopt A Culture Of Safe Working
What is the point of an article like this? A big part of it for me is that when I grew up in this industry there were very few people that I could model my work after. Almost every part of this industry I had to learn about through trial and error. In the modern day pool industry we are now bordering on having an accredited trade designation - something I would have killed for 20 years ago. When I had concerns about working safely they would most often be met with harsh resistance. Construction work is hard work, and makes hard workers, the kind of people who work through the pain. The next generation of swimming pool industry workers needs to be able to learn from the previous generations mistakes.
The swimming pool industry has come a long way in the past 25 years. Technology is slowly catching up to the work we do and there is hope that more effective training and education for new workers will soon be available. As someone who has spent a great deal of time working in the bottom of a muddy hole I can easily say that the attitude of the workers needs to update far more so than many other parts of the industry. The older generations, and the ones with all of the experience to give, grew up in a hard world without protection for workers. PPE is actually laughed at on many jobsites even to this day. Much of this can be attributed to machismo but it needs to change for the pool and spa industry to grow into future generations. Most companies can hardly fill their ranks these days. There is no pull for new workers to enter our trade. There is no trade status, the wages are far below average for the level of skill needed, there are no retirement portfolios and the work is hard enough to grind you up and spit you out. Making a better pool industry starts by you deciding for yourself to make it better. One of the best ways you can take this with you to work on Monday morning is to make the decision that ZERO unsafe work will happen around you. Be smart, work smart, and you can have a long, successful career in the pool industry.
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