IRSST - Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail

Solutions for improving the health and safety conditions of flooring installers


Flooring installation is divided into different specialties: ceramic, wood and flexible covering. The last sector is the one that interests us, i.e. installation of carpets (stretched or glued; rolls, tiles) or resilient materials (linoleum, vinyl, rubber, artificial grass, etc.). Flooring installation is physically demanding (handling very heavy rolls, prolonged kneeling, spreading glue over large surface areas) and takes considerable skill. For one thing, precision is required to adjust and match up patterns. With resilient materials, the tiniest mistake shows. Currently, a young person with a vocational diploma in flooring installation will start as an apprentice, and can achieve full journeyman status after completing three duly reported 2,000-hour periods (since 2014). The working conditions can also be difficult: heat, inadequate traffic areas, tight construction deadlines, etc.

The industry is now having trouble recruiting workers and is concerned with keeping aging installers in the workforce. There are currently 1,200 to 1,600 workers whose main job is installation. They basically work in small businesses. Intervening in a context like this is a big challenge in OHS because most tools and approaches were developed with medium-sized and large businesses in mind. So we are talking about a dispersed environment with limited resources, with a multitude of overlapping stakeholders-organizations (manufacturers, retailers, construction managers, Commission de la construction du Québec representatives, instructors and school board representatives, etc.). The work is varied, changes quickly, and reportedly carries a high risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders of the knees, back, shoulders, hands, wrists and ankles. On the other hand, the industry can rely on unifying groups like the Fédération québécoise des la pose de revêtements de sol (FQRS) and the prevention mutual GROUPE Agr.  

Many possible solutions can be explored to improve available equipment or tools, organize the work and the trade, develop alternative work methods favouring work in a standing position, etc. The first challenge was to identify potential solutions that would be technically accessible and feasible (e.g., acceptable and usable) and likely to have an impact. To this end, we identified existing or proposed (e.g., patented) solutions and submitted them to a first group of 15 installers to find out what they thought, whether the solutions were worth working on and whether they wanted to be involved. We also compiled a list of situations and issues and asked  them which were priorities in terms of OHS impact. These installers were identified and brought together by the prevention mutual counsellor, who has worked in this area for 20 years. The installers had a response sheet, but it was their verbal explanations that were particularly valuable. For instance, we showed them a trowel mounted on a telescoping stick which facilitated working in a standing position. The oldest installers said that these sticks had already been tried 25 years ago, but could not meet the precision and quality requirements of resilient flooring. After this meeting, we determined three groups of solutions to be developed and formed three work teams.

The first team tackled the problem of handling rolls and explored the possibility of designing a multipurpose trolley that would decrease the number of operations involved in transferring rolls and make them easier to handle and unwind. Today’s trolleys are not designed for this type of work. From one meeting to the next, the installers identified a number of ways to facilitate the work and avoid damaging the flooring material. For instance, they wanted four- rather than three-roll unwinders to ensure stability during unwinding, a palette with two or three degrees of tilt to avoid rubbing on the edge of the roll, tires that don’t pick up dirt or leave marks on the flooring (no runflats or rubber that is too soft or too hard). The installers wanted a multipurpose trolley to meet all their needs with just one piece of equipment. They endorsed the developed solution and the prototype, now under construction, will be tested. This prototype will be used to verify whether the entire concept is functional before fine-tuning it and working on equally important aspects such as the final weight and manufacturing cost.

The second team looked at equipment that would reduce the strain of working in a kneeling position. The team started with the telescoping stick to determine whether solutions could be found to the reported problems. The response was “not yet.” Testing of a thigh support ordered from the United States was not conclusive either. The installers found it very uncomfortable and unsuited to their work. At this meeting, the installers had brought in equipment that they had sometimes converted. Based on their thoughts and comments, the team realized that it might be useful to design a more suitable thigh support, as well as an air-cushioned rather than caster-mounted surface. The work involved developing concepts and ideas, then quickly testing them on the installers before producing more sophisticated prototypes. In the case of the thigh support, the third generation a a model designed by the research team yielded results that were encouraging enough for it to be retained as a solution. For the air-cushioned platform, the team found a technical solution with seemingly excellent potential.

At the first big meeting, the installers also identified training as a core issue. Young graduates are not staying in the trade and competence varies widely. They also talked a lot about respect for their trade. To meet the needs expressed by young installers, the third team addressed training and website development (they were questioned about this). For training, the team met with stakeholders affected by these issues – entrepreneurs, manufacturers, instructors, young installers, members of training subcommittees, etc. – to ensure that they fully understood the various viewpoints, but also to validate, from one meeting to the next, what had been said. Overall, a consensus emerged on what the problems are and which solutions need to be implemented, but the multiplicity of stakeholders was a hindrance to concerted and coherent action. We recommend organizing a forum bringing together all the partners with a turnkey action plan. Lastly, the team worked on implementing a website for installers. This site contains ideas gathered during the work meetings on equipment and is a forum for exchange enabling installers to share their knowledge of their trade (e.g., equipment assessments, job skill sheets). The biggest challenge was finding people who could help develop the content, such as instructors and retirees. Implementing a website was recognized as a promising solution.

Lastly, three key points emerged from this research-intervention: 1) The open innovation process as practised in OHS has little to do with the everyday process, because it merges employees-entrepreneurs’ knowledge of the kinds of problems to be solved with researchers’ knowledge on how to solve some of these problems. It is a back-and-forth and multi-interaction process; 2) In OHS, it is important to further develop solutions-centered approaches; 3) Identifying people who are familiar with workers and know how to mobilize the right people is critical to working in this area. Prevention mutuals can be invaluable in this respect.

Additional Information

Category: Research Report
  • Monique Lortie
  • Sylvie Nadeau
  • Steve Vezeau
Research Project: 2013-0035
Online since: March 24, 2016
Format: Text