Tool and shop safety

Published On: July 1, 2024Categories: Features
This project was fabricated by Canvas Girl, a canvas shop in Key West, Fla., that involved a helm enclosure with snaps, DOT fasteners and straps. Shop owner Jen Jarland says, “It takes a lot of different body actions to accomplish this kind of install.” Photo: Canvas Girl

Sewing techniques and fabric expertise are obvious critical skills for any marine fabricator, but what may be less obvious is that safety in the shop, especially when using tools and handling materials, is just as important. Being smart and strategic with your body while you work can help prevent injuries and increase productivity.

All the marine fabricators interviewed for this article are women. While they may face specific safety issues related to body size and strength that men may not, their general advice for using tools and handling materials wisely can apply to anyone hoping to stay healthy and achieve longevity in this industry.

Shown working here, Canvas Girl shop owner Jen Jarland says keeping her core muscles engaged makes her feel more stable and brings more strength to her movements. Photo: Canvas Girl

Applying lessons learned 

Annie Mahle has been running Georges River Canvas in Rockland, Maine, since 2021, which makes her relatively new to the marine fabrication business. She says applying lessons from her former career sailing a Maine windjammer is helping her succeed in her new venture.

“We sailed traditionally rigged historic windjammers that were large, two-masted schooners,” says Mahle. “There was a lot of hauling and pulling, and nothing is mechanized on those schooners, so there’s a lot of being smart with your body to make it through the day—and it’s no different here in the shop.”

Most of the tools in her shop came from the previous owner, and she says some of them have been in use for 40 years. Newer tools may take less effort, but it’s not what she has available. “I don’t mind using the old-school tools,” says Mahle. “I just have to figure out, if I can, a way to use them without having to use brute strength to get them to work.”

At Onboard Interiors and Hood Canvas in Marblehead, Mass., owner Krista Plauché says she prefers to have two people on an install because working as a team is both safer and easier than working solo.

Tricks for tough tools

“Anything that requires a wide grip and therefore strength can be a challenge,” says Mahle. “Even the Pres-N-Snap tools that we have need a really wide grip to close. If you’re doing a lot of snaps, those are hard on your hands. I have a way of using them where I don’t actually close them with my hand. I put the lever on the bench and get it lined up, and I use my whole body and push down. I’m a strong person but even so, if there’s a smarter way to do it, I’d rather do it that way. Anything you can do to minimize the repetition on your body, the better.”

Krisha Plauché, owner of Onboard Interiors & Hood Canvas in Marblehead, Mass., agrees that her Pres-N-Snap tool is one of the most challenging tools in the shop. “It’s small, but it’s quite a bugger—it’s like my kryptonite. It’s really designed for a bigger hand. If you only have to do one or two holes, it’s not a problem. But if you have 50 on a boat and you’re going through four layers of fabric, it’s really tough. What we like to do is use two people on an install, and we will literally take turns. It’s a lot easier when you are working as a team.”

However, it’s not always just tools that are tough to work with. For Plauché, large cushions can be tough, too. “We have these giant cushions, and we will have one person on the boat and the other will lift it up to them,” she says. “It’s important to make lifting a two-person job. It’s not so much the weight as the sheer size when you’re lifting them onto a ladder or down a gangway and then onto a launch and to a boat.”

“You really need careful processes, especially for Iifting things,” says Plauché. “You’re asking for trouble if you don’t do it right.”

Plauché says one of the most challenging tools she uses is the Pres-N-Snap tool. “It’s like my kryptonite,” she jokes. Having two people on an install allows them to take turns using the tool to give their hands a break. Photos: Onboard Interiors and Hood Canvas

Importance of fitness

Paying attention to physical fitness throughout the workday is critical, according to those interviewed for this article.

“I engage my core at all times,” says Jen Jarland, who runs Canvas Girl in Key West, Fla. “I’m really aware of my body so I’m not straining the one muscle I’m trying to use at that moment. Having my core and other muscles engaged makes me feel more stable and brings more strength to my movements.”

“Always bend with the knees as well,” she says. “Always use the knees. Sometimes I even say it out loud when I am going to lift a big box or something.”

Plauché says her staff looks for frequent opportunities to reduce physical stress. “A member of our team is preparing for a road race, so we’re ‘team building’ with her by everyone doing a plank once an hour and then we do stretches,” she says. “We are finding this really helpful because so much of our day is spent over the layout tables or over the machines, so we need to keep our necks and backs loose. Sitting or standing in the same position can be a problem.”

Michelle Fortney, owner of Coastal Marine Upholstery and Canvas LLC in Key Largo, Fla., shown at her workstation. Her issue at the shop? Too many tools are not built for small hands. Photo: Coastal Marine Upholstery and Canvas LLC

Everything in its place

Shop organization can never be overrated when it comes to keeping the environment safe.

“You have to pick up after yourself,” says Mahle. “Just like on a boat, everything has its place. When you’re done with a tool, it goes back to its place, every single time. We don’t want somebody spending a little or a lot of time looking for a tool when it’s not necessary. Also, if sharp things don’t get stowed properly, that’s a safety issue.”

“A rule in our shop is you don’t steal from a station because you’re stealing from a friend,” says Mahle. “If you need a pair of nippers for a job you’re working on the bench, you don’t take it from a machine, you take it from the place where the other nippers are.”

“Then the person who sits down does not have to get up and walk around the shop looking for the nippers,” she adds. “The less walking in general that a person has to do makes it more efficient and safer. No one is bumping into each other and no one’s having to navigate around the crowded shop. Like on a boat, there is no extra space here, but if everything goes back where it’s meant to go, everything’s OK. If it doesn’t, then we’re not as safe or efficient as we could be.”

Plauché says she keeps a bin by each sewing machine with all the necessary tools. “We do better work and work more efficiently if we know where to find everything. I think one of the biggest ‘tools’ to work efficiently in this industry is to stay organized. That’s especially true with our van because it’s easy to let it get messy, and then it’s impossible to find what you need. We pride ourselves in keeping things clean and organized.”

Annie Mahle of Georges River Canvas in Rockland, Maine, says that closing a Pres-N-Snap tool requires a wide grip, which makes it difficult to use with smaller hands. She uses her entire body to push down on the tool, which makes it easier on her hands.

Scissors safety

Kat Maisto, who has owned Fairwinds Canvas LLC in Racine, Wis., for 25 years, says the toughest tool in her shop is the 1¼-inch stainless steel bender. Yet even scissors, she says, one of the most basic tools of any fabrication shop, can be a problem if not used properly.

“A lot of times, shops don’t give their employees the proper tools they need,” says Maisto. “I’ve seen left-handed people using right-handed scissors and I’ve thought, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ There’s no excuse—you can get scissors in any shape or size. You have to make sure everyone is properly equipped because safety is such an important issue.”

Mahle uses a block-and-tackle system to lift heavy rolls of fabric onto a rack. This prevents heavy lifting and dangerous twisting that could cause serious injuries. Photos: Georges River Canvas

It also can be a challenge to find scissors and other basic necessities for smaller hands, says Michelle Fortney, who runs Coastal Marine Upholstery and Canvas LLC in Key Largo, Fla. “So many tools are not built for smaller hands,” she says. “Finding gloves that fit is a problem, for example. I have really small hands, and I can’t work with gloves that don’t fit. Whenever I go into a store, I look for gloves.”

“I’m a safety-first kind of person,” says Jarland. “It’s always on my mind, identifying something that looks unsafe and saying, ‘Wait a minute.’ I’m always looking for potential issues and fixing them.” 

Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn Park, Minn.

SIDEBAR: Safer lifting and material handling

Lifting heavy items is one of the leading causes of injury in the workplace. Here are some smart lifting practices to prevent injuries:

  • Use mechanical means (e.g., hand trucks, pushcarts, etc.) when possible.
  • Always push rather than pull.
  • Keep loads as close to the body as possible and do not twist while lifting, carrying or setting down a load. Nose, shoulders, hips and toes should all be facing the same direction.
  • Minimize reaching.
  • Bend at the knees, not at the hips.
  • Get help when needed. Do not lift or carry things you don’t feel comfortable with, no matter how light the load.
  • Plan ahead for all parts of the lift: lifting, carrying and setting down.
  • Try to use proper handholds while lifting. If an item does not have a good handhold, think of ways to remedy this, such as placing the item in a container with good handholds or creating a safe and proper handhold with an appropriate tool.


SIDEBAR: Heavy lifting game changer

We routinely sew fabric from these enormous rolls of geotextile fabric. Usually, they require a carpet pole and a forklift to move around. We get them delivered and at the time of delivery, we load them onto dollies. Then, when it comes time to put them on the rack, we use a block-and-tackle system that allows one person hauling on either end. It’s even a job one person can do alone safely by walking back and forth between each rig. No heavy lifting or dangerous twisting to get them on the rack. Just straight, ergonomic pulling with a much higher 1:3 ratio of pull strength.”
­—Annie Mahle, Georges River Canvas