Flooring – what’s the danger in that? Unlike roofers, flooring installers don’t have to ply their trade several stories in the air, nor must they work outdoors in trenches among heavy machinery, as excavators do. Flooring crews quite literally work on solid ground.

However, it would be a mistake to categorize flooring as inherently safe. Working in tight, cramped spaces with sometimes hazardous materials, flooring installers are subject to a range of potential injuries. In fact, it’s the misperception that flooring isn’t as dangerous as other trades that can cause contractors to overlook its many possible hazards.

How to keep the focus on safety? The key is having a defined process that identifies hazards and plans to mitigate them. Brian Blake, Risk Management Consultant at Builders Mutual and former hardwood installer, discusses what contractors should pay attention to before, during, and after flooring installation to minimize risks to both workers and property.

Flooring hazards vary by materials

No matter what types of materials in use, floorers share a common set of backbreaking tasks: bending, lifting heavy boxes, and crawling around on their knees for hours on end.

However, each of the main flooring materials also presents distinct challenges:

  • Hardwood. Sanding and buffing wood – even using supposedly “dustless” vacuum systems – sends large amounts of dust into the air, making it harder to breathe. Also, the use of glues and stains can produce hazardous vapors. Bulky machines such as sanders, floor buffers, and edgers are taxing to operate for long periods of time.
  • Tile. Cutting tile, even with the use of wet saws, produces silica, which can result in respiratory problems. There is the potential for chemical burns from handling materials such as tile mortar, grout, and cleaning solvents. 
  • Marble and granite. Lifting heavy slabs of these materials puts extra strain on workers’ backs, knees, and joints.
  • Carpet. Using sharp tools such as utility knives to cut carpet, or carpet irons to seam carpet sections together, can pose significant risks for lacerations or burns. Also, some carpet installers keep materials on hand at their own warehouses, where they need to use special forklifts to move large carpet rolls, introducing a new hazard that must be managed.

Working with any of these materials can produce a number of injuries (and insurance claims):

  • Slips, trips, and falls over misplaced tools or errant electrical cords
  • Muscle and joint sprains and strains from lifting and constant bending
  • Lacerations from sharp edges of materials or tools
  • Hand and head injuries from working in awkward spaces
  • Eye injuries from chemicals, dust, and other flying particles from using saws
  • Potential for electrical shock when using power tools and equipment

Some flooring-related injuries, such as chronic knee pain, may not appear until years later. Take, for example, dust or silica exposure. Only years later, long after a flooring installer has stopped cutting and laying tile, can they potentially experience serious breathing problems.

A checklist of safety best practices

To help prioritize safety of your flooring crew, follow this simple checklist:

Before installation

Prep your space

  • Assess your situation: Identify what will be needed to accomplish your particular project. What types of materials are required? Equipment? If you are doing a renovation, will you first need to remove existing flooring? Do you need to prepare your base (e.g., concrete) in any special way to ensure flooring will adhere properly?
  • Clear a path: Make sure you know how to move equipment – especially large machines like sanders – in and out of your workspace. If there are stairs or steps, devise a plan to navigate them safely.
  • Protect the area: If your work will produce large amounts of dust – for example, hardwood installation – you will need to lay down plastic and cover air vents and ductwork.

Prep your equipment

  • Get the right tools for the task: Ensure your crew has all essential gear, including safety goggles and gloves. For particular tasks, such as working with adhesives that produce fumes, equip your team with masks or respirators.
  • Check the condition: Just because you have the right tool, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s in good shape. Blake notes that, in his experience, some rental equipment features frayed electrical cords, which could risk an electrical shock or fire hazard.
  • Invest in quality: Poorly made personal protective equipment (PPE) doesn’t just provide inadequate protection; it also wears out quickly, increasing costs in the long run. This is particularly true for knee pads.

Prep your team

  • Communicate expectations: Even experienced crews need reminders about safety best practices. Identify potential hazards and ensure workers are wearing the right gear and performing housekeeping.
  • Bring new team members up to speed: Make sure those new to flooring serve first as assistants to seasoned workers by shadowing them to learn proper techniques for lifting and handling equipment.
  • Train on tools: Hardwood floor sanders and buffers require skill, attention, and technique as these can easily cause significant damage not only to floors and other areas (e.g., walls, doors), but also to crew members if not used properly.   

During installation

  • Keep workspaces tidy: The number of trip and slip accidents around a workspace is directly tied to housekeeping. Move waste out of the way throughout the day, and shift electrical outlets if possible as you move through an area, so cord lengths are kept short and manageable.
  • Keep equipment in good shape: Properly functioning tools don’t always end up that way after hours of installation. Inspect utility knife blades for sharpness; do the same for cutting saws. Dull blades impact performance and safety.
  • Keep the focus: Once you’ve laid down hardwood, carpet, or tile in room after room, your rhythm can trick you into thinking everything is going smoothly and you may begin to overlook safety precautions. Take periodic breaks to check your area for hazards.

After installation

  • Finish strong: Many flooring materials take time to set, including wood stains or tile grout needing to cure. Block the area off – not only to complete the finishing and protect the integrity of the work, but to make sure no one else comes into contact with fumes or slick surfaces.
  • Start the next day fresh: Clean up the workspace, check tools for any necessary repairs or replacements, and wash your hands and bodies thoroughly to remove any chemicals or adhesives.

From having the right site safety plan in place to selecting the most appropriate PPE to understanding the particular hazards associated with each type of flooring material, contractors have a lot to think about. Builders Mutual risk management consultants can help. We’re available to help with initial assessments for either new construction or renovations, and can conduct crew training on safety practices, such as proper lifting techniques. We also provide a range of video Safety Toolbox Talks on topics ranging from nail gun safety to silica safety to saw safety.

Contact your risk management consultant today to learn how we can help you set the bar for flooring safety.