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Mac grads design safety pliers to reduce injuries to ironworkersJuly 2, 2019

Mechanical Engineering graduate's family legacy sparks inspiration for safety pliers.

Ironworking is in Alexander Barros’ blood. He grew up hearing stories from his father, grandfather, uncles and cousins of their experiences working in the trade. That’s when his fascination with ironworking began, and his understanding of its physical hardships deepened. 

“As a child, I relished the idea that my grandfather helped build some of Toronto's most critical and iconic infrastructure, with the CN Tower being the most awe-inspiring in my eyes,” says Barros, who recently graduated from Mechanical Engineering and Management. “While my grandfather wore the ironworker badge with pride, it was no secret that the work was back-breaking and dangerous at its core.”

The job requires workers to put significant stress on their wrists while fastening tie-wire around reinforcing bars — a reality Barros learned firsthand while working with Metrolinx one summer in high school. Workers can tie upwards of a thousand ties a day, making repetitive stress injuries a major health concern. 

It’s a widespread problem. Musculoskeletal disorders in the construction industry cost the United States between $45-54 billion annually, according to a study done by researchers at the University of Massachusetts and St. George’s University.

All of this inspired Barros and a team of fellow Mechanical Engineering students Adnan Lokhandwala, Ali Maqbool, Dylan Porco and Kevin Najdienow to design a new type of pliers to help ironworkers. 

Dubbed BarLok pliers, the device eliminates the twisting motion that ironworkers must repeatedly perform, replacing it with a safer, more ergonomic, pull motion. This reduces workers’ chances of developing musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. They started working on the project in January as part of their 4L03 Industrial Design course at McMaster with mentorship from Dr. Vince Sowa, Dr. Sean Baker, and teaching assistant Umer Javed. 

The BarLok pliers recently netted the team the $3500 Minerva Canada James Ham Safe Design Engineering Award. They took home the prize on April 30 during the Partners and Prevention 2019 Healthy & Safety Conference and Tradeshow in Mississauga.

The team hopes to get a provisional patent, find a manufacturer, and make BarLok pliers commercially available within the next few years. They made several design choices to promote adoption by the construction industry. 

The pliers can be used one-handed, allowing workers to use their free hand for tasks such as holding the rebar in place and climbing structures. The design is also battery-free and can be used in any weather condition.