Construction companies are increasingly allocating more money for labor-saving items that reduce man-hours in the field while limiting liability risks. Handheld tools and devices can enhance worker performance and reduce owner overhead costs for increased market competitiveness. Greater productivity can be achieved through safer, ergonomic devices that increase efficiency while reducing health insurance-related claims.

Innovation, in part, has been driven by companies forced to do more with less during a deep recession. The most popular, best-selling items often address repetitive stress injuries, which cost employers more than $20 billion annually in workers' compensation, reports the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Another $100 billion is spent on lost productivity, employee turnover and therapy and/or surgery.

However, manufacturers like Mineola, N.Y.-based MAX USA are curtailing that pricey trend with a handheld rebar tier that looks and acts like a cordless power drill. The company's new model RB 397 can tie up to size 6 rebar with a squeeze of the trigger, dispensing 2,000 ties per charge. It is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The 14.4-volt RB 397 helps reduce carpal-tunnel syndrome while improving efficiency with three wraps per tie using 21-gauge wire. MAX also offers an extension handle so workers can stand upright while tying rebar.

Manually tying rebar at ground level involves pliers, wire and deep, sustained trunk bending with rapid, repetitive and forceful hand-wrist, forearm movements that limit the time workers can safely perform tasks. A battery-powered rebar tying tool "significantly reduces" those physical movements and frees one hand for trunk support, reports the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Although the MAX RB 397 costs about $2,600, the average compensation for a carpal-tunnel injury is $33,000, reports the National Council of Compensation Insurance. Construction laborers had an incident rate of 35 per 10,000 full-time workers in 2011 due to overexertion and repetitive motions, says the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Indeed, frustration over aches, pains and scrapes prompted Australian concrete laborer Ray Rowbotham to invent the Robo-Joiner BNRJ-100. The 5.75-lb, rechargeable device, which resembles a jig saw on steroids, cuts concrete control joints with speed, ease and accuracy.

"In the old days, you would have a hand tool that you would have to push along and pound to create the joint," Rowbotham says. "This does it automatically in half the time with less cracking."

Powered by dual 20-volt lithium-ion batteries, the Robo-Joiner can produce saw-cut and rolled edges using two 3/4-in. blades that move at up to 2,400 rpm. The variable-speed trigger-controlled device sells for $695, a nominal sum compared with the 12 lost work days and $38,500 in average compensation paid out for repetitive stress-related injuries, according to the BLS.

Opening Doors

Rowbotham, like many industry entrepreneurs, is seeking the best solutions to worksite problems. Take Travis Kelley, for example. An ex-Minnesota construction worker, he was employed as a warranty representative for a door manufacturer when he realized things could be done better. "Ninety-five percent of doors failed due to bad installation, which causes uneven tension and premature warping," says Kelley. He founded JenTra Tools with wife, Jen, in 2011. "Installing doors can be confusing and frustrating, regardless of skill or professional level," he says.

JenTra consequently launched the seven-piece Cheatah door-installation kit. The $50 nylon resin device forgoes juggling 6-ft levelers and shims and physically balancing the door to keep everything square, thereby preserving muscles, joints and bones. Instead, Cheatah uses integrated levels and built-in spacers that click into place in order to keep spaces around the door parallel and plumb. Three pieces fit along the door hinge; three more go onto the strike, with a final piece placed atop the door. Fold-down, accordion-like spacers ensure a proper tool fit for both 1-3/8-in. and 1-3/4-in. doors, which account for 99% of the market, JenTra says. Manufactured in Rogers, Minn., the tool has been making the rounds at trade shows, earning top-product honors at the International Builders Show in January. Cheatah, which has 3,000 pre-sales and counting thus far, should be available in lumber yards after July 1.

JenTra's simple but sound solution can mean big savings in reduced labor, time and injuries. Worker sprains, strains and tears made up 44.4% of all incidents in 2011, the BLS reports. That affects the cash-intensive, bottom-line construction industry, whose already slim profit margins further narrowed during the economic downturn. Today's surviving contractors are closely scrutinizing jobsite procedures and practices with an eye toward safety, proficiency and remaining competitive.

"We promote both safety and efficiency on our jobsites, including mandatory constant pressure switches on hand tools in lieu of on-off switches," says Ray Sedey, McCarthy Building Cos. executive vice president. "Additionally, we analyze potential work hazards and identify ways to mitigate them. This includes dedicating time to stretch at the beginning of each shift so the risk of soft-tissue injuries can be reduced."