LAVERGNE, Tenn.—The needle on the air pressure gauge edged its way up the dial as a worker in faded blue coveralls called out the numbers—``10 pounds; 20; 30. . . .'' Separated by the safety of distance and a yellow warning tape, observers stared intently at a passenger tire on a tire-changing machine across the parking lot.
At about 68 psi there was a momentary, almost-inaudible tell-tale sound: steel belts straining, snapping. Onlookers flinched, almost in unison, at the thunderous explosion. Wisps of bluish smoke hung lazily in the air as the shredded tire streaked more than 20 feet skyward.
Spinning crazily, it then careened downward like a wounded Frisbee until the fractured rim clanked loudly on the pavement.
``What do your neighbors think about you guys?'' one observer joked nervously.
But everyone could envision some hapless tire buster hunched over the black orb moments before its violent journey upward.
The demonstration was repeated about a half-dozen times. Jarring images. And meant to be.
It was a dramatic sendoff to a new tire safety program officials at Hennessy Industries Inc. insisted is needed—perhaps desperately—by an industry where most often it is the young, inexperienced employees who attempt to perform the potentially most violent, dangerous duty in a tire shop.
Before undertaking that hazardous job, Hennessy, the manufactur-er and marketer of tire and auto service equipment, is urging anyone who changes tires to think of one word so common to the industry: R.I.M.
The ``R.I.M. by Coats Program'' stands for:
Read the size on the tire and make sure it matches the wheel;
Inspect the wheel for cracks, bent flanges, rust—anything that could result in a dangerous situation; and
Mount the tire in a safe manner, never placing any body part over the tire during inflation.
Citing recent U.S. Department of Commerce statistics that indicate accidents in tire shops were up more than 100 percent between 1994 and 1995, Mark Cramer, Hennessy's manager of marketing and product planning, stated: ``Machinery doesn't cause an accident—it's the operator.''
That dramatic increase, he hastened to point out, was not entirely related to tire explosions, but also involved back injuries and other types of mishaps.
Hence, there is not only a need for proper equipment, but for trained operators.
Company officials unveiled their new training program to tire trade press and automotive journalists during a recent tour of the firm's LaVergne headquarters and manufacturing plant.
The visit coincided with the commencement of a year-long celebration of the 75th and 50th anniversaries, respectively, of Hennessy's Aamco division, which markets auto service equipment, and its Coats unit, a maker of tire service machinery.
R.I.M. joins other industry tire maintenance safety programs already offered by the International Tire and Rubber Association and the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association.
Mr. Cramer said the program focuses on tire explosions because they can be the most catastrophic, causing very serious injuries—or death. By following the steps outlined by R.I.M.—``the techniques we use are the same ones the industry has used for years''—an operator can eliminate many potential problems. Those include one of the most common causes of explosions: the mismatching of tires and rims, particularly 16-inch tires with 16.5-inch rims, or vice versa.
In its parking lot, the company illustrated just such a mismatch. The resultant explosion catapulted a truck tire more than 30 feet upward. In each demonstration, the tire's bead had first been partially cut to expedite its rupture.
The key to safety, in any event, is knowledge—the framework for Hennessy's program. It is designed for any size shop or service facility that repairs and mounts tires, is simple and fast, and offers safety basics in less than an hour.
Mr. Cramer gave several reasons why Hennessy decided to promote the program, based, in part, on so-called ``voice of the customer'' input about the need for easy-to-remember safety procedures:
Many catastrophic tire shop accidents that cause serious injury or death are preventable;
Tire technicians often take speedy shortcuts that can impede safe tire-changing procedures;
Tire techs aren't always properly trained; and
Sensitivity by shop owners to rising worker's compensation claims.
The R.I.M. kit includes a training videotape, brochures, posters and R.I.M. stickers, which Hennessy suggests should be attached to a tire changer at about eye level to constantly remind operators about the simple procedure.
Designed to leave a lasting impact on viewers, the 20-minute video begins with several tire explosions. It is narrated by Dave Bowman, host of the popular TNN cable TV show, Shadetree Mechanic.
The 10-page booklet accompanying the kit covers many common-sense guidelines to tire service, and is illustrated with color photos that show 11 typical ``problem situations.'' Those include: damaged beads; rusty, bent or cracked wheels; hand, finger or back injuries; and overinflation or improper inflation. Drawings depict the mismatching of tires and rims.
The booklet's final page contains a ``pledge'' card that an employee fills out, attesting to an understanding of R.I.M. ``and how it can help keep me safe. I will practice R.I.M. on the job.'' Hennessy recommends the shop foreman keep the signed, dated card on file.
The kit's suggested retail price is $60, though it is free with the purchase of Hennessy equipment.
Asked why the company decided to charge for something it believes is so imperative for the industry to follow, Mr. Cramer said that ``putting a value on it raises the likelihood it will be used.''
Beginning this month (March) through October, Hennessy will conduct an extensive media campaign for R.I.M., as well as a comprehensive direct mail effort to its existing customers, distributors, equipment servicers and national accounts.
Hennessy likely also will try to link its program with various trade and training associations.
The company estimates that more than 500 million tire changes are made on its Coats equipment annually.
``Accidents cost all of us: in lost time, in medical expenses, in insurance and worker's comp, and even in litigation,'' Mr. Cramer said. ``And nobody ever wants to see a friend get hurt.
``We felt it was time to take a very proactive stance on safety,'' and R.I.M. ``is an easy way to get everyone in our business practicing the fundamental things necessary to avoid many accidents.''
He seemed to be saying R.I.M. is a far better alternative to the tombstone epitaph, R.I.P.