In 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported over 143,000 hand-related workplace injuries, second only to back injuries (which numbered 191,450). While hand injuries are not usually fatal, they can certainly cause a worker significant pain and suffering. Along with lost earnings and medical bills, severe hand injuries can permanently affect the way an injured person does simple, everyday tasks.
The Real Financial Cost of a Hand Injury
On average, hand stitches can cost up to $2,000. Procedures like tendon surgery, repairing an injured finger or amputations cost even more. While injured employees may be able to rely on Workers’ Compensation and other benefits to cover medical expenses and lost earnings, the amount of that compensation sometimes is not sufficient.
The dollars and sense of treatment and recovery from a hand injury are just the beginning. Think of the loss of the ability to perform the same job at the same level of skill. How much in lost wages, not to mention standard of living, would a person lose without the use of one or both of hands?
For employers, the financial costs of employee hand injuries are considerable, too. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the average direct cost of every hand laceration is over $19,000. This amount includes Workers’ Compensation benefits, the employee’s medical and rehabilitative care, increased Workers’ Comp premiums and lost work time. And if a local safety bureau shuts operations down to investigate, or if an injured employee files a lawsuit, companies may face massive indirect costs of the injury.
What exactly causes workplace hand injuries and triggers these costs?
Common Hand Injuries in the Workplace and Their Causes
According to the latest report by the Safety and Health Council of North Carolina, the five most common hand injuries in the workplace include lacerations (63%), crushes (13%), detachments or avulsions (8%) and fractures (5%). Other injuries include burns, contusions, sprains, strains and frostbite.
- Lacerations and punctures occur when there is direct contact with sharp, spiked or jagged edges on tools, materials or equipment.
- Crushes, fractures and amputations are likely when a worker comes in contact with gears, wheels, rollers, rings, belts or falling objects. These injuries may also occur when a worker’s clothing or gloves are caught in the mechanical parts of the equipment.
- Burns are often due to direct contact with a chemical or a hot surface; they can also be caused by contact with electrical arcs.
- Strains, sprains and other musculoskeletal injuries are usually caused by using the wrong tool for the job, or one that is too small, too big or too heavy for the worker’s hand.
- Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) is damage to tendons, muscles and bone joints that can also affect the nervous system. These are caused by prolonged use of vibrating tools, such as jackhammers and grinders.
In industrial workplaces that use mechanical equipment and tools, hand injuries are often brushed off as part of the job – unless an injury is serious enough to warrant a trip to the hospital. It’s crucially important to change this mentality, however. Employers can eliminate this thinking by promoting safety awareness in the workplace and requiring employees to report all personal injuries, whether they are major or minor.
Follow these steps to promote a culture of hand safety in the workplace.
1. IDENTIFY THE HAZARDS
You cannot reduce the risk of hand injury if you don’t know the potential dangers your employees face every day. The first step is to review your company’s hand-related accident and injury records to detect trends and patterns. Find out the types of hand injuries that happen most frequently, and in what areas of your facility injuries most often occur.
To give you an idea of what to look out for, here are the common hand hazards in various industries:
- Pinch points are gaps between two objects where gloves or hands can get caught. Examples of pinch points include a machine with two continuously moving parts, such as rollers, blades or wheels.
- Rotating parts increase the risk of a hand injury like moving parts. Clutches, spindles and fans of machinery can accidentally catch loose-fitting gloves, taking a worker’s hand along with them.
- Sharp-edged materials and tools, such as knives and box cutters, are a potential culprit of hand injuries. Self-retracting knives, while still sharp objects, offer an added level of protection.
- Hot and cold spots – hazardous chemicals and machinery with hot surfaces like burners and welding instruments can cause serious burns to the hands. Direct contact with extremely cold surfaces, such as transfer pipes in refrigeration systems, is similarly hazardous, as it can also cause severe burns.
- Automated machines help improve efficiencies in the workplace, but they bring certain safety risks. For instance, an automated machine that starts up unexpectedly can easily catch the hand of a worker who is too close to it and not paying attention.
- Unsafe clothing like loose garments, ill-fitting gloves and even bracelets can easily get tangled in moving machinery, putting a worker’s finger or entire hand at risk of getting caught in the machine.
When reviewing your company’s hand-related accident records or performing a hazard analysis, follow these steps recommended by the National Safety Council:
- Complete a physical hazard assessment of the entire work operation.
- Review work practices to prevent hand injuries for each hazard you pinpoint.
- Review personal protective equipment (PPE) and tools assigned to each risk type. Use the right tool for the job, which includes the right type of glove.
- Review and inspect your machinery to ensure all guards are in place.
These steps will help you detect hand accident trends in your workplace and will help you accurately identify the causes of hand injuries that most frequently occur in your facility. With a thorough list of high-potential hazards, you can work to eliminate them when possible and mitigate them to your acceptable tolerance level.
2. ELIMINATE OR REDUCE THE HAZARDS
Because machinery and tools are necessary for your day-to-day operations, you can’t simply remove all of them in an effort to avoid hand injuries. What you can do, however, is lower the risk through engineering and administrative controls.
Engineering controls reduce the risk of workplace hand injuries by building a barrier between the hazard and the employee. These include the use of safety guards, PPE, electronic proximity limiting devices (i.e., limit switches), emergency stop devices and ergonomic tools.
Often made with glass and steel, safety guards are attached to tools and machines to keep workers from coming into direct contact with the machines’ sharp objects, rotating parts, and pinch points. Safety guards work best when used, never operate equipment if the safety guards are broken or have been removed.
Another type of engineering control involves the use of PPE, specifically gloves. After all, 70% of hand injuries recorded in 2015 involved employees who were not wearing gloves at the time of the accident. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the remaining 30% wore gloves but sustained injuries due to glove damage or the fact that they wore the wrong type of glove for the hazard present during the accident.
To prevent hand injuries, OSHA’s standards for hand protection require companies to equip employees with the appropriate hand protection or gloves. Common types of gloves include:
- Cotton: Best for light-duty material handling and cleanup work, but not generally recommended because of their fit and wear compared with just about every other type of glove on the market.
- Leather: Suitable for equipment handling, heavy cleanup, general construction or handling of moderately hot or cold materials (such as those used in welding).
- Heat-resistant: Designed to protect hands against burns and heat-related discomfort, these are ideal for handling equipment or materials with hot surfaces.
- Shock-absorbing or anti-vibration: Suited for operating rotary hammers and other vibrating tools and equipment.
- Kevlar or metal mesh: Extra cut protection for tasks that involve heavy cutting or working with sheet metal and glass.
- Non-conductive (thick): Designed to protect electricians, engineers and other workers against low-voltage electricity.
- Non-conductive (thin): Suitable for workers who deal with blood-borne substances, chemicals and corrosives.
- Neoprene, nitrile, latex and vinyl: Designed to resist products and chemicals such as solvents, oils and acids.
- Waterproof: Ideal for working in wet environments.
One of the most important factors in selecting hand protection, is the need to wear the right glove for the task at hand. Safety gloves offer a variety of safety features – from cut and impact protection, to chemical and abrasion resistance.
In addition to these common types of gloves, some gloves are manufactured using advanced technology to meet specific needs while enhancing worker comfort and dexterity. Workers often choose not to wear their gloves because they find them bulky and uncomfortable. But high-tech gloves are form-fitted and ergonomically designed, so workers can keep them on throughout the day.
Apart from wearing gloves, another engineering control measure is the use of electronic proximity limiting devices. These include switches and sensors that keep a worker’s hands from getting too close to equipment when starting up or while the equipment is running.
Emergency stop devices allow workers to shut down a machine by pushing a button, flipping a switch or pulling a rope. These devices are important to prevent or lessen severe hand injuries during unfortunate situations.
Some equipment should even be equipped with emergency “dead-man” switches that shut down machinery should the operator not have the ability to do so.
Engineering controls also include the use of ergonomic tools. Because they are designed and built to put less strain on wrists, fingers and hands, these tools help protect workers’ hands. Also, using ergonomic tools makes the process of completing each task more comfortable and effortless. In turn, employees no longer have to take extra steps or unnecessary movements that would put them at risk of hand injury.
Administrative controls are important if engineering control is not possible or if these measures cannot effectively reduce hazards on their own. Here are several examples of administrative controls.
1. Conduct regular safety training for all employees
Generally, employers provide safety training for employees when they are new, but only a few conduct regular training sessions for tenured workers. Many companies also fail to train “other employees” – those who aren’t assigned to handle equipment but who visit the areas of operations from time to time.
Even if your company provides safety training at regular intervals, how often is that training specific to the tools and machinery you work with each day? Too often, additional training is designed to fulfill a regulatory requirement and neglects the true intent of improving employees’ safety awareness.
With lack of training and the absence of an organizational culture of safety, workers tend to neglect basic safety protocols. This puts them at risk of getting hurt while performing daily tasks. It bears repeating – safety training and culture are of the utmost importance.
If you don’t have an in-house safety officer, hire a third-party expert who can create a tailored hand safety training program for your organization. The program must educate your employees by making sure they understand the hazards of their daily tasks and how they must deal with these risks. Simply put, the program should address the following at a minimum:
- Types of hand hazards in each area of your workplace
- Types of injuries these hazards may cause
- Appropriate mitigations to reduce the risk associated with the work
- Proper types and fit of PPE (gloves, respirators, coveralls and other size-dependent safety gear)
One thing you should never take lightly is hand safety training. Never assume that people know how to select the right glove for specific jobs, even if they have been in the industry for several years. Make certain that all employees undergo in-depth hand safety training, as it could be the difference between staying safe and sustaining a life-limiting injury.
Your hand safety training should help workers feel confident in selecting the right type of glove to wear for a job, especially if they change gloves for multiple tasks. Your employees shouldn’t be confused about the functions of each glove type, including the purpose of any special features or enhancements. More importantly, after the training, the importance of hand protection should be crystal clear to your workers.
When it comes to actual hand safety training, you can think outside the box. The secret to successful safety training is to make sessions interesting enough so the lessons become memorable. For instance, you can demonstrate how serious hand injuries can be by asking employees to perform simple tasks, such as opening a jar of peanut butter or tying their shoelaces, without using their fingers or one hand.
Also, make sure the activities during monthly or quarterly training sessions are different. This way, you keep hand safety training interesting, engaging and memorable even if you conduct it repeatedly.
2. Educate front line supervisors
Shift and front line supervisors play a key role in the success of any safety initiative. When it comes to hand safety, supervisors need to lead by example. If managers don’t adhere to hand safety procedures and policies themselves, employees under their supervision are more likely to ignore safety practices.
On top of training all employees on hand safety, allot time to train your front line supervisors on the importance of leadership and dialogue. Workers should feel comfortable about complying with their orders and talking to them about PPE and hand safety concerns.
This training should equip supervisors with the skills and confidence they need to intervene whenever they observe any form of disobedience or disregard of safety policies in the workplace.
3. Introduce daily toolbox talks
With a trained team of supervisors, you should implement daily toolbox talks for your team. Young workers (ages 18 to 24) are twice as likely to be hurt on the job because they are less experienced and more likely to take risks. By incorporating a toolbox talk, in which a supervisor or safety leader talks to the group before work starts, accidents that cause injuries can be reduced or avoided.
How should you conduct toolbox talks? One simple way is to address any safety violations that you may have observed without disclosing the identity of the violator. Then remind employees about best practices for completing particular jobs or working with certain machinery. This way, your team steps into the worksite with hand safety at the front of their minds.
4. Determine safe work practices and encourage workers to follow them
In addition to safety training, it is also important to determine safe work practices and encourage workers to follow them. You can go back to your hazard assessment and accident records to determine the best and safest approaches to a certain job or task. Safe work practices may include:
- Always staying alert and focused on keeping hands safe throughout the day, and not just at the start of the work shift or task.
- Keeping safety guards on machinery and power tools in place. Do not remove or reposition them. This is especially important for power hand tools, because the guards tend to get broken over time.
- Inspecting tools before using them and identifying safety features of tools and equipment, such as emergency stop buttons or off switches. Quarantine, repair or replace damaged equipment immediately.
- Evaluating the current ways employees handle, transfer and apply chemicals, and then finding ways to prevent spills and splashes.
- Using the smallest quantity of chemicals necessary to get the job done.
- Choosing ergonomic tools or tools specifically designed for the task to be performed.
- Substituting hazardous products with those that are safer to use whenever possible.
- Wearing gloves that fit your hand and are right for the specific task and hazards present.
- Removing rings and other jewelry, as well as eliminating loose clothing, to avoid getting caught on a moving object.
- Making sure equipment or power tools are completely off before replacing, cleaning or repairing them; following lockout/tagout (LOTO) procedures.
When determining safe practices, it is also helpful to address human factors. Complacency, fatigue and frustration are states of mind that can easily contribute to hand injuries. Allow your workers to take regular breaks to prevent them from feeling tired or stressed while performing hazardous tasks.
You can also address human factors by teaching your employees to practice good hand safety habits like:
- Looking carefully around the surroundings before placing hands on equipment or surfaces, or before inserting hands into something.
- Moving eyes before moving hands.
- Avoiding contact with pinch points.
Developing strong habits to perform safe work practices goes a long way toward reducing workplace hand injuries.
5. Create and implement a lockout/tagout (LOTO) program
Another administrative control you can implement in your workplace is a lockout/tagout program. Lockout/tagout programs protect employees from accidents and injuries during machinery repair or maintenance. The goal of these programs is to shut down machines to keep workers from using them until repair or maintenance work is complete.
Many companies in the United States have no lockout/tagout program or the one they have leaves employees at risk of committing lockout/tagout mistakes that may result in a hand injury or worse. These mistakes include:
- Failure to disconnect power sources: When locking out a machine for inspection or repair, many workers mistakenly believe that turning off the switch stops the power supply to equipment. But the power can still travel through the equipment, causing electrical shock or injury when servicing it. An effective lockout program would require workers to disconnect the power source of the equipment before placing it in repair or service mode.
- Incorrect use of lockout tags: Lockout tags inform employees about lockout and verification procedures, as well as safety hazards. Failure to use (or incorrect use of) lockout tags may lead to a worker starting a machine that is still in repair mode and getting his or her hand injured by malfunctioning parts of the machinery.
- Use of duplicate keys or shared locks: Some employers think that the use of duplicate keys and shared locks increases efficiency, since there is no need to wait for a lead technician to apply a lock and tag to every machine that needs servicing. The problem with duplicate keys and shared locks, however, is that anyone can unlock the equipment without fully verifying clearance for operations. This lack of lockout protocol puts every employee near the equipment at risk for hand injuries.
In many cases of hand injuries related to lockout/tagout procedures, it is complacency and familiarity with the equipment that causes workers to neglect basic lockout/tagout rules. But when you create a tailored lockout/tagout program and effectively implement it in your workplace, you can reduce the risk of various types of hand injuries.
6. Use safety signs properly
Besides safety program training and implementation, you can further protect your workers from hand hazards by placing safety signs in your areas of operations. If you’re unsure which sign to place near a hazard, OSHA offers guidelines for placement, depending on the type of sign:
- Place danger signs where a hazard poses an immediate danger so employees can take special precautions.
- Post warning and caution signs near equipment to warn workers about potential hand hazards. You can also use caution signs to remind them about unsafe practices.
- Put up safety instruction signs in places where general instructions and safety suggestions can help employees perform their tasks safely.
Workers should be able to see the signs from a safe distance. OSHA guidelines require the signal word DANGER to be in white letters on a red background. The signal word CAUTION must be printed in black on a yellow background header, while the WARNING signal word must be in black letters on an orange background. All signal words must be preceded with the safety alert symbol.
You can communicate and build awareness about hand safety through other verbal reminders and written communications, such as informational posters, banners and fliers.
After eliminating or reducing hand injury hazards through administrative and/or engineering controls, it’s time to evaluate the current equipment in your facility to see which machines need an upgrade or replacement.
3. UPGRADE OR RE-ENGINEER EQUIPMENT
Using outdated equipment can increase the danger of a hand injury. Old machines are not only less efficient, but they most often do not come with adequate safety features or have outdated ones.
Manufacturers make their equipment and tools safer, usually as the result of injuries sustained while using the equipment. If you replace an outdated machine with a new one, employees will get additional protection through new safety features.
For example, excavators have improved over the years. These machines now include automatic shut-offs that protect operators and technicians from falling objects and moving parts. The long-term safety benefits of such upgrades are well worth the up-front cost of replacing outdated equipment.
In case you don’t need equipment upgrades yet, you can still improve hand safety by re-engineering your machines. An example of this safety technique is installing light curtains on your equipment.
Safety light curtains are a smart addition to your equipment because they create an optical wall of light that separates the employee from the equipment. These curtains react when an object, such as hand or finger, passes through the beams of light, sending a stop signal to halt all the machine’s hazardous motions. Also, these safety light curtains allow for multiple mounting options, making them appropriate to install on various sizes or types of equipment. The only downside to using safety light curtains is that they are not ideal for machines that take a long time to stop or that produce ejected materials.
Re-engineering equipment can also be as simple as tweaking the height of a machine to promote healthy movement while completing tasks. This helps workers make multiple or repetitive motions with greater ease, preventing a sudden change in movement that may result in a hand getting caught in a machine. When re-engineering machines, it is ideal to ask for employee suggestions and feedback. This way, you know exactly how to make a tool or piece of equipment more suitable for its users.
4. ENFORCE POLICIES AND PROCEDURES
Identifying hazards, conducting safety training and upgrading equipment will not be as effective as they could be without a method of enforcing hand safety policies and procedures.
Many companies resort to reprimanding or penalizing those who ignore safety rules. But occupational safety and health magazine EHS Today reported that rewarding safe behavior is the most effective method for promoting compliance.
Recognize your employees whenever they achieve safety milestones. Treat them to a steak dinner, award them extra vacation time or give them monetary rewards. These perks can encourage more of your employees, including those who often choose to ignore protocols, to promote a culture of safety.
In addition, engage your workers by including them in the safety process. You can send out an employee survey to know the safety issues that matter most to them and the work areas in which they feel safety improvement is necessary. At the end of the day, employees care about their own safety, health and well-being. When they feel ownership of the safety process, they are more likely to play an active role in enforcing it.
5. EVALUATE AND REVISE SAFETY PROGRAM
Keeping your workplace safe is an ongoing journey. Make it a point to evaluate your safety program, including the training procedures and enforcement policies.
The following are ides for conducting a hand safety program evaluation:
- Ask employees for feedback via surveys or informal discussions. These answers will provide you with data that can be helpful when you revise your program.
- Follow up with supervisors regularly. See if there are any changes in employee behavior before and after the training, equipment re-engineering, or a change in a workplace environment.
- Evaluate recent hand injury data and compare these with your past records. Check to see if there is a trend of reduced incidents or near-miss rates; these are indicators that the changes you’ve made to your safety training, policies, tools or workplace environments have been successful. If you changed your reporting requirements to require reporting of all minor, or first-aid injuries, you may see an increase in the number of these injuries. Safety reporting has a funny way of showing you the problems lying just below the surface in your organization.
Based on your evaluation, look for ways to improve your safety processes. Revisit your hazard assessment, engineering and administrative control measures, training program, equipment re-engineering and policy enforcement. See if there’s anything you can revise and enhance further.
Workers’ hands are their most important tools, but unlike screwdrivers and wrenches, hands are irreplaceable. Even a small cut can impede performance and cause lost time. If there’s one lesson you should learn about hand injuries, it is that you can prevent them – if you are willing to work with your employees to promote a culture of safety.
Achieving zero hand injuries on the job is a continuous journey that requires the unwavering commitment of everyone in your organization. Remember, workplace hand injuries are common and costly, but they are almost always preventable.
For help evaluating the potential for hand injuries in your workplace and selecting the right glove for the job, contact one of our hand protection experts or check out some of our free resources by clicking the button below.