A group of skilled woodworkers from Durban’s Highway area have adapted their trade to modify life-saving plastic bottle spacers, which are essential in treating asthmatic patients during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A group of skilled woodworkers from Durban’s Highway area have adapted their trade to modify life-saving plastic bottle spacers, which are essential in treating asthmatic patients during the Covid-19 pandemic.

How woodworkers from Durban are making their contribution to the fight against Covid-19

By Mervyn Naidoo Time of article published Jan 10, 2021

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Durban - A group of skilled woodworkers from Durban’s Highway area have adapted their trade to modify life-saving plastic bottle spacers, which are essential in treating asthmatic patients during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Members of the Woodcrafters’ Association of Durban, an organisation comprising mostly retired artisans, teamed up to create purpose-made machinery that fast-tracks the availability of the in-demand spacers.

Their slice of ingenuity in the production of spacers includes a machine that cleanly cuts off an end at the base of the plastic bottle, which houses the inhaler, and another for labelling.

Plans are afoot to use their prototypes in the countrywide production of spacers.

For many years, low-cost bottle spacers were used with much success at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town in the treatment of asthma.

It is the norm for asthma medication to be pumped into the patient’s mouth via an inhaler. This usually results in much of the medication hitting the back of the throat instead of lungs, where it is needed.

But when a spacer is attached to an inhaler, the medication is better channelled into the lungs.

An inhaler fitted with a spacer is also believed to be far more hygienic and ultimately safer than a nebuliser.

While a nebuliser is effective in directing medication to the lungs, there is always the chance that the resulting aerosolised secretions could contain the coronavirus and other germs.

Contaminated secretions would endanger the lives of other patients and health-care workers.

Therefore, the Allergy Foundation of South Africa (Afsa) embarked on making available thousands of life-saving spacers, in quick time.

Previously, a mere 500 spacers were produced through time-consuming methods.

As part of their plan to roll out 100 000 spacers in 2020, Afsa partnered with Polyoak Packaging and Habitat Industries to mass produce the bottles using a customised blow mould. Afsa earmarked 20 000 spacers for KZN, but they needed the assistance of volunteers who could cleanly cut off the end, at the base of the bottle.

Professor Mike Levin, head of allergy at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital and Afsa’s chief executive, approached the Woodcrafters’ Association of Durban for assistance with the supply of spacers designated for KZN, and they accepted the challenge.

The association was formed in 1991 and has a membership of around 80, comprising novice, amateur and professional woodworkers and turners.

When Dave Knight, the association’s communications person, called for volunteers to work on the 20 000 bottles that were delivered to his Kloof home, 13 members responded.

At first it was trial and error for the woodworkers, who also drew assistance from family members, before their perfect cut was achieved.

Band saws and Stanley knives were used initially. Even 90-year old Norman Rouillard, a retired dentist, had a go. He trimmed an entire box of 180 bottles using a scalpel, but the painstaking procedure was time-consuming.

Allan Ferguson, a retired machine-maker, devised a far more efficient cutting method, using a powered wood lathe with a circular cutting disk and a cradle to hold each bottle.

Ferguson’s creation enabled the group to rapidly increase their output to around 180 cut bottles in 10 minutes. Knight said labelling was their next challenge. “My family made it a social occasion. One evening, my daughter, wife, nephew and sister-in-law did over 1 000 bottles while watching TV.”

Knight said Ferguson, who loves to dabble and invent things, was once again responsible for coming up with a machine-aided approach to labelling. “He built a machine with a motorised cradle, optical switch and pivoting paintbrush to help apply the self-adhesive label.”

Knight said when they first considered Levin’s call for assistance, they “weren’t sure what we were letting ourselves in for”. The association’s members usually met twice a month. During some sessions, experts did presentations on skills like tooling, antiquing techniques, woodturning, leatherwork and stained glass production.

Some members’ works are displayed at various shows and exhibitions. Their labour of love also includes producing educational toys for children living in homes and other charitable institutes, at Christmas time.

When they got the spacers project, Knight said “everyone responded positively”. “They felt proud to be of assistance and use their skills and knowledge in some way to complete 40 000 bottles, which helped in the fight to keep society safe and healthy,” he said.

For more information on the programme, visit www.allergyfoundation.co.za.

[email protected]

Sunday Tribune

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