Pipe wrench extenders, which are usually called “cheater bars”, are great in theory. Have bushings or other joints that feel like they were put together by a gorilla on steroids? Is the pipe wrench you’re using just not cutting it? Slip a length of pipe or similar extender over the end of the wrench and enjoy the extra torque that it gives you. Seems like a real no-brainer, right?
Unfortunately, reality often tells a different story. Spend a little bit of time browsing the accident reports on the OSHA website and you’ll likely see phrases like “the hollow metal pipe making up the cheater bar slipped off the wrench.” Some workplace accidents involving cheater bars result in minor injuries, while others result in broken bones or more serious wounds. You’ll even see some that result in death. With that in mind, are there ever any instances where cheater bars or other wrench extenders might be okay to use?
Cheater Bars and Safety
The big problem with using a cheater bar or wrench extender is that it creates a weak point right in the middle of the pressure you’re applying to your joint. If using a pipe as an extender, the pipe could slip loose. If using a specialized tool as an extender, an unfortunate twist or shift could cause the tool to separate.
Even if the extender is designed to lock in place so it can’t separate easily, all of the torque you’re adding could damage the fitting you’re trying to loosen or cause it to come loose suddenly… possibly causing injuries when your extra-long handle jerks suddenly. It’s perfectly possible to use a cheater bar and not have any accidents or injuries occur at all, but that added point of weakness means that there’s no guarantee of how things are going to go.
Cheater Bars and OSHA
OSHA, as well as most other safety-focused organizations, discourages the use of cheater bars. If an accident occurs on the job and a wrench extender was involved, there’s a good chance you’ll be cited with an OSHA violation because the tools and equipment provided weren’t sufficient to create a safe workplace for the employees on the job. This is why a lot of bigger companies don’t allow extenders and cheater bars on jobs; if they work fine 99 times and only fail once, the OSHA violation that comes from that one time still outweighs the 99 times they worked with no problems.
Obviously, not every instance where someone uses a wrench extender results in an accident. Their use is a pretty common practice, honestly, and some tools are even designed with tapered handles or other features that make cheater bars easier to fit onto the tool. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t an increased risk in their use, either from the chance of the extender coming loose or a chance that the extra torque could cause some damage to your work area.
If you want to maximize safety and stay OSHA compliant, consider alternatives to breaking out a cheater bar to crack those tight joints. Some solvents can loosen joints even when a joint compound or cement was used, and there are a few different ways to heat metal fixtures so they will expand and be easier to loosen.
Pneumatic tools may provide you with the extra torque you need without the added risk. You may even be able to loosen things up by simply tapping the joint with a hammer a few times to vibrate the threads. Regardless of how you manage to break things free, just be sure that you stay safe while doing it.