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Moving Mahem

From runaway pianos to angry estranged husbands, a mover's lot is not an easy one. We offer some tips on shouldering the load.

When it comes to on-the-job dangers, movers -- those muscular, sweaty men who make their living hauling all the things we blithely call our "stuff" -- have something in common with victims of spousal abuse: their biggest fear is encountering an angry husband or boyfriend.

"I know guys who've had guns pulled to their heads," says Domingo "Bingo" Reyes, a dispatcher at Irwindale, California-based Eastern Atlas Van Lines. "They were doing their job for some girl we were moving when the boyfriend came home. I guess he didn't want her moving out. So he pulled a gun."

What does the savvy mover do when a routine job turns into a scene out of a Tarantino flick? The same thing anyone should do when faced with a madman waving a gun: stay calm and give the gunman what he wants.

"The guys put the furniture back and got out of there," Reyes explains. "We're movers, not cops. No job is worth dying for."

Most movers have never had to stare down the barrel of a gun -- such instances are relatively rare. But in order to keep it that way, many companies take precautions to make sure their employees don't end up stuck in the middle of a nasty divorce or breakup.

"We've learned our lesson," Reyes says. "If a lady calls me up and says I'm getting a divorce and she wants the crew there at a certain time when the husband isn't home, we won't do it unless she calls the police and we get an escort."

Spurned, out-of-control men may be the most dramatic hazard that movers face, but the most common danger comes from far less threatening things, such as pianos and couches. As anyone who has ever tried to save money by not hiring movers knows, lifting and carrying heavy, unwieldy objects can be difficult and often menacing.

Even professionals, who are trained to lift and carry large items safely, sometimes get into risky situations. In fact, it seems most movers have either been hurt on the job or know someone who has.

Robert had been moving pianos -- one of the heavier, more dangerous objects movers deal with -- for more than 20 years when a small mistake almost cost him his life. He and his partner were hauling a several hundred pound piano up a steep staircase. Robert was behind the piano, pushing, his partner was up above, pulling. They knew it was going to be a tough job, but they needed the money.

At the top of the stairs, Robert pushed with all his might, trying to tip the piano up over the last step and onto the safety of the flat floor above. But as he pushed, he lost his footing and found himself crashing down the stairs, the piano sliding perilously close behind.

"It all happened in an instant," says Robert's son, Dan, who has been working at D&J Piano Moving for more than 17 years. "Suddenly this huge piano is chasing him down the stairs. It was really scary."

Robert got lucky. He slammed into the wall at the bottom of the stairs and, in the split second he had to think, braced himself for the potentially fatal impact of the fast-moving piano. But for some reason -- perhaps the spirit of Mozart was looking out for a fellow piano lover -- the impact never came. The top of the piano flipped over Robert and hit the wall above him, leaving just enough space that he was untouched.

Robert cracked his hip during the fall -- a serious and painful injury, to be sure -- but he was alive. When he recovered, he returned to the job and spent many more years moving pianos without another incident.

"He got really lucky," Dan says. "He easily could have been killed."

Experts say the best way to avoid such on-the-job mishaps is good training. The more an employee knows about safe lifting techniques, the better off he will be. In fact, federal regulations state that all employers -- including moving companies -- must provide a safe work place and must make sure employees are properly trained to do the work they're doing. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the US Department of Labor developed national ergonomic standards that would have required employers to implement further protections, but they were rejected by Congress in 2001. Currently, OSHA is in the process of issuing voluntary ergonomic guidelines for various industries.

"For movers, training employees in proper lifting would be the biggest concern," according to OSHA spokesperson Deanne Amaden. "If an employee knows the safest way to do their job, they are more likely to avoid injuries and accidents."

Back injuries are the most common on-the-job danger, according to movers. Following close behind are other muscular-skeletal disorders, a category that includes everything from pulled muscles to unexplained neck pain. Movers also experience a high incidence of lacerations, falls, and motor vehicle accidents.

So far California is one of the few states that forces employers to try to prevent musculoskeletal injuries by following a set of ergonomic guidelines. The regulations are designed to ensure the safety of workers engaged in repetitive tasks -- whether it's a typist who sits at a keyboard all day, a machinist performing the same job on an assembly line, or a mover who spends much of his day bending and lifting. "The federal government is looking at adopting similar regulations, but so far hasn't acted," says Dean Fryer, spokesman for the California Department of Industrial Relations.

Meanwhile, training programs can prepare movers to avoid the inherent dangers of their job. Basic safety tips include:

  • Lift with your legs, not your back.
  • Take your time. No matter how harried your client, rushing only leads to mistakes.
  • Make sure you and your partner both know the moving plans and how you're intending to carry them out.
  • Avoid tripping and falling injuries by wearing heavy duty shoes or boots, clearing a path between the object you're lifting and the truck, and being extra cautious on slippery ground.
  • Wear protective gloves when lifting glass or other items with sharp edges.
  • Take as much burden off your body as possible by using a dolly for heavy objects.
  • Use common sense: If something is too heavy, don't try to lift it -- get help.

Of course, to learn all the tricks of the trade, nothing beats on-the-job experience. "There's no school you can go to learn this," says Tom Mitchell, who has been working at Carson, California-based Bekins Moving & Storage Co. for 45 years. "For the most part, it's on-the-job training."

It might seem that the most important assets a mover can have are big muscles -- the better to lift things with -- but this isn't true, experts say. Big biceps will help you lift a refrigerator, but an abundance of muscle mass doesn't mean you will lift it safely. In fact, stronger movers are often tempted to rely on their strength rather than on safe lifting techniques.

Reyes, who has been working in the moving business since 1966, believes it's no accident that he's never been hurt on the job.

"The guys who tend to get hurt are the big guys," he says. "They use their muscles instead of their brains. What they don't realize is you have to finesse the furniture." Indeed, lifting with the legs can spare a mover's back, but if the ramp to the moving truck is attached incorrectly, or the path to the truck is wet from overnight sprinklers, a worker can face an even greater risk of injury.

After lifting heavy objects, the most dangerous part of a mover's job may be driving the trucks that carry customers' precious belongings. The obvious dangers associated with driving long distances, often at night, include getting into accidents or falling asleep at the wheel. Other dangers include traffic accidents as well as excessive noise, which can damage a driver's ears, and extreme vibration, which has been linked to back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders.

Federal regulations protect truck drivers by limiting the amount of time they can be forced to drive in one sitting, and cross-country haulers are generally subject to the same rules as drivers of long-haul tractor trailers. Commercial drivers can drive a maximum of 11 hours only if they have had 10 consecutive hours of rest. "If someone were told they had to drive more than that, or were fired for that, that would be a problem," Amaden says.

If all this isn't enough to keep movers up at night, they also have to look out for two creatures that haunt the nightmares of people around the world.

"There are stories of going to move something and a spider or a snake is behind it," Mitchell says. "That can be scary. But it's usually not dangerous."

But despite spiders, fatigue, and pulled muscles, many movers report that they enjoy the flexibility and independence that their job offers. Among them is Peach Harbold, a Pennsylvania mover and hauler who has packed up entire houses and moved the contents thousands of miles by herself. "I love driving the truck," she told author Katherine Wyse Goldman. "I have time to think about things....I really enjoy the freedom I never had."

Further Resources

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's "Revised Lifting Equation."

This complicated equation can help workers and employees follow safe lifting guidelines. It is available online at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/94-110.

NIOSH's "Elements of Ergonomics Programs:"

http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/97-117/

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration's Ergonomic Page:

http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics/index.html

References

Katherine Wyse Goldman. If You Can Raise Kids, You Can Get a Job. HarperCollins, 1996.

Occupational Safety & Health Administration. OSHA Protocol for Developing Industry and Task Specific Ergonomic Guidelines.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Hours-of-Service Regulations -- Effective November 19, 2008.

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