Annmarie Caulfield outlines the protective measures necessary to keep your workers safe from hand and arm incidents. The hands and arms are, like any body part, vital to most day to day activities. As with the rest of the body they can come into harm’s way in many different forms while in the workplace. This harm can be in the form of exposure to hazards such as vibration, repetitive strain injury, carpel tunnel syndrome, over exposure to harmful chemicals, extreme temperatures, cuts, entanglement and even amputation. Harm to these limbs can leave us with decreased functionality both in the workplace and in our everyday lives.
While the physical effects are usually clear to see, there are also huge financial, emotional and psychological burdens that are caused by any workplace accident or incident.
Almost all workplace illnesses and injuries are preventable and as with any illness, prevention is better than cure. We need to address these hazards, where possible before work commences, to ensure the most effective control is reached.
The most effective and reliable way to prevent problems in the workplace is to design and operate processes to avoid contact with hazardous materials. Take all the steps you can to achieve this before resorting to the use of protective gloves.
A task-specific risk assessment needs to be carried out to determine the need for protective measures, and to determine what measures are the most suitable for your organisation.
Effective control measures usually consist of a mixture of process and/or workplace modifications, applied controls and methods of working that minimise exposure and make the best use of controls. Very often this mix includes the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
The first step in any risk assessment is to identify the potential hazards and the potential consequences of exposure to these hazards.
As detailed below, there are a number of different hazards that can cause harm to the hands and arms in the workplace.
In light of a recently completed and comprehensive study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), it is concluded that vibrating hand tools can cause vibration syndrome. Hand arm vibration (HAV) is vibration transmitted from work processes into workers’ hands and arms. It can be caused by operating handheld power tools such as road breakers, hand guided equipment such as lawn mowers, or by holding materials being processed by machines such as pedestal grinders.
Prolonged and regular exposure to this vibration can affect the operator’s health, resulting in painful and disabling disorders of the nerves, blood supply, joints and muscles of the hands and arms. These disorders are collectively known as hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS).
Continuous repetitive actions on the hands, wrists and arms can lead to reduced functionality of the hands and arms, as experienced by many office workers. In numerous cases, the symptoms continue outside the workplace and can lead to daily discomfort and often long term effects. In the Netherlands alone there is concern regarding the proportion of repetitive strain injury (RSI) related complaints among workers who are classified as users of visual display units (VDUs). According to some indications, in some sectors this could affect more than 50% of workers.
Dermal exposure is a major route of occupational exposure to hazardous substances. Different chemicals have different adverse effects on the hands and arms, from mild irritation to contact dermatitis or corrosive burns. A large proportion of the workforce may be exposed to both naturally occurring and manmade chemicals while at work. Without adequate risk assessment and controls the results of this exposure could be detrimental.
In EU Member States, skin diseases are the second most common occupational diseases, with contact dermatitis being the most common. Other work related skin maladies include chemical burns, skin cancer and contact urticarial, which is a skin rash characterised by pale red, raised, itchy bumps that may cause a burning or stinging sensation.
Thermal burns are caused by working with hot surfaces, hot liquids, vapours, gases or heating systems. Exposure to extreme heat or extreme cold can both cause harm to hands and arms in the form of burns.
Using mechanical equipment in the workplace can easily lead to cuts and abrasions if the correct precautions are not taken. In more severe cases, fingers or limbs can get caught in equipment, leading to entanglement and even amputation. Industries most affected by this are agriculture, construction and engineering.
Protection at work
Many of the hazards mentioned previously can be controlled by the use of engineering methods or improved ergonomic design. Even after applying these options, however, there is sometimes still a requirement for PPE to ensure complete protection, e.g. for the use of chemicals or vibration tools.
Hierarchy of control
The Hierarchy of Control should be used at all times when implementing controls, to eliminate the hazard or reduce the risk of a hazard causing loss, damage or injuries.
The hierarchy of hazard control is a list that emphasises controlling a hazard at the source. This is done by giving preference to the use of the engineering controls.
These types of strategies should be used, where possible, because they are less subject to human failure and are both less disruptive and uncomfortable for people carrying out the work.
Backup safety measures, such as PPE and administrative controls, should only be used as a last resort or as a support to other control measures. In many cases, it will be necessary to use more than one control method. Whichever methods you use, regular monitoring is important to make sure that the control is working effectively and that exposure to the hazard is eliminated or reduced to a safe level.
As shown in the Hierarchy of Control diagram, the first line of defence should always be elimination of the hazard. Whether injury to the hand or arm is through chemical contact or exposure to vibration through power tools, we need to look at where the hazard can be removed. Does this task need to take place? If not, eliminate it. Elimination means there cannot be any exposure – the ideal solution.
Jobs could be redesigned to minimise the use of vibrating hand tools, and powered hand tools could be redesigned to minimise vibration. Where jobs cannot be redesigned to eliminate vibrating tools, such as when using pneumatic hammers, gasoline chain saws and other powered hand tools, then engineering controls, work practises and administrative controls should be employed to minimise exposure.
If hazards cannot be eliminated completely we need to look at how we can improve safety for those exposed. We need to decide if we can substitute the activity or the materials we are using for safer alternatives. To prevent HAVS, for example, we could use welding, or to reduce chemical burns we could look for a less corrosive material that will be as effective.
While looking at substituting activities and materials, we also need to understand that we could be just relaying the harm to another body part; the lung, for example, by inhalation. We need to decide what measures are the most reasonably practicable for our organisation.
Engineering and administrative controls follow substitution closely, but as these can be quite expensive to implement many companies do without. If they can be implemented at the design stage with good planning, engineering controls can be the most effective way of protecting those in the workplace.
As discussed in the first section of this article, there are many ways hands and arms can become harmed in the workplace – simply typing this article and working for long periods of time at display screen equipment (DSE) could lead to repetitive strain injury.
Administrative and behavioural changes such as taking frequent breaks, carrying out a DSE assessment and implementing good ergonomic design can all help to reduce this occurrence. In addition, applying guards to mechanical equipment can protect from cuts and entanglement. When implementing engineering controls to prevent HAV, the use of low vibration tools and damping can be very effective to protect users.
Protection against HAV
When looking at hand and arm protection the two main points that come to mind are HAV and chemical exposure. Chemical exposure, if not combatted at an early stage or through engineering controls has many options of protection through various gloves or barrier creams. This is not necessarily the case for protection from vibration. Yes, gloves are available, but HAVS should be tackled before PPE needs to be considered.
Gloves will generally perform best against higher frequency vibrations, with little effect at low and medium frequencies. This means they can pass the standard test and still produce only negligible or moderate reductions in the frequency-weighted vibration magnitude at the hand.
As well as the actions that can be taken to reduce workers’ exposure to vibration, there are other measures which, while not reducing the daily vibration exposure, are thought to reduce the risk.
To reduce risk:
- Avoid over exposure – reduce a worker’s time at a particular job so they get regular breaks and the blood circulation can recover. Encourage them to take breaks during long tasks, as several shorter exposures with recovery periods are believed to better.
- Stay warm – try to carry out as much of the task indoors as possible. Keep the worker warm to increase blood flow and circulation.
- Supply staff with regular warm meals and drinks to keep the body temperature regulated. This is particularly important if the work needs to be carried out outdoors or in cold environments.
- Encourage employees to stop or cut down smoking, which can lead to impaired circulation.
Following these steps and the suitable engineering controls, anti-vibration gloves can be worn to provide additional protection. It is also important to carry out regular monitoring and health surveillance on the workers to ensure that any adverse effects are recognised early on and dealt with accordingly, before it is too late.
PPE considerations for employers
When selecting PPE the employer must adhere to the Use of Personal Protective Equipment Directive 89/656/EEC. As outlined below, there are three articles of the Directive that merit particular attention, as they place substantial responsibilities on employers.
Article 3 states that before selecting any PPE a basic assessment must be made to identify and evaluate the risk. Where possible, the risk must be reduced or eliminated by a modification of workplace practises. This option is always preferred to the use of PPE.
Under Article 4, the employer must inform his/her workers of the risks in the workplace, supply appropriate and correctly fitting PPE that complies with EU standards, and give adequate instruction in its use. The employer should further ensure that the PPE is used only for the purpose intended by the manufacturer and in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.
Article 5 requires the employer to:
- Audit workplace hazards and assess the level of risk to employees
- Define the properties necessary in the gloves to protect the employees
- Ensure that all gloves used in the workplace conform to the PPE Directive and relevant EN standards
- Compare the merits of the various types of protection available
- Keep full records of assessments and reasons for selecting a particular type of glove
If the risk should alter in any way, for instance by the introduction of a new chemical or industrial process, the assessment must be reviewed and changed accordingly.
After all other ways of controlling the risks have been exhausted, implementing PPE to protect the hands and arms must be considered. The most effective way of doing this is through the use of protective clothing such as gloves, sleeves or gauntlets.
PPE tends to be less effective and less reliable than other control options because it:
- Needs to be selected for the individual
- Needs to fit the wearer and not interfere with their work or other PPE Needs to be worn correctly every time and has to remain properly fitted throughout the individual’s exposure • Needs to be properly stored, regularly checked and maintained to ensure it is fit for purpose and not damaged • Tends to be delicate and relatively easily damaged • Can fail and cause danger, sometimes without warning
- Needs to be worn correctly every time and has to remain properly fitted throughout the individual’s exposure
- Needs to be properly stored, regularly checked and maintained to ensure it is fit for purpose and not damaged
- Tends to be delicate and relatively easily damaged
- Can fail and cause danger, sometimes without warning
Despite all these potential downsides, if PPE is used correctly and in conjunction with other control measures it can prove very valuable.
European standards for PPE have been developed as the preferred means of displaying that equipment conforms with the basic health and safety requirements of the EC Personal Protective Equipment Directive (89/686/EEC). Only equipment that meets the criteria outlined in this Directive is allowed to carry the CE mark and be sold for use in the EC.
The EN or ISO standards contain design, performance and marking requirements for different types of equipment.
When it comes to PPE, it is never a case of any glove will do. The type of glove, sleeve or gauntlet selected will depend on the activity, material being used and the risk assessment. A glove that will protect against a corrosive liquid may provide zero protection against extreme temperatures or vibration and vice versa.
Choosing the correct PPE
Where avoiding contact is impossible or impracticable, protective equipment will be needed. Selecting the correct protection, whether that is gloves, gauntlets or sleeves will depend on the required protection.
The choice of protection should be based on the work, the wearer and the environment they work in.
When selecting protection, consider:
- The substances handled and all other hazards
- The type and duration of contact
- The user – size and comfort
- The task
While cost effectiveness is important it is not advisable to select your protection based solely on price.
The material of the glove should be fit for purpose; that is, if you are using the glove to protect against the harmful effects of hand and arm vibrations you will need to use shock absorbent gloves suitable for this. Similarly, if you are selecting a glove for protection from corrosive materials you will need to select the glove most appropriate for this.
When selecting gloves you need to ensure you are adhering to the EEC Directive mentioned earlier and that the equipment you supply for your workers reaches the standard outlined in the Directive.
The type of exposure will determine which standard to meet, although different standards have many of the same requirements in common. There are a number of European standards that govern the production of gloves, such as EN 420:2003, which outlines the general requirements for protective gloves, and EN ISO 10819:1997, which covers gloves marketed in Europe as ‘anti-vibration’. The latter must carry the CE mark, indicating that the gloves have been tested and found to meet the requirements of the current standard.
The standards also include gloves that give protection from:
- Chemicals and microorganisms – EN374:2003
- Mechanical risks – EN388:2003 • Thermal hazards – EN407:2004
- Cold – EN511:2006
- Radioactive contamination and ionising radiation – EN421:2010
Protection against chemicals
Some products contain substances that can harm the skin or enter the body through skin contact. The product label or material safety data sheet should tell you if this is the case. These may also give information on what protective gloves to use.
To protect hands from chemicals, choose a glove that meets the European standard EN374-3, making sure that the glove material you choose protects against the substances being handled. When dealing with chemical exposure there are a number of glove and sleeve materials that may be suitable. For this reason you will need to look at the chemical breakthrough time of the gloves and select the material that will best protect against your particular hazardous material.
Whether you are working in a laboratory or on a construction site you are sure to come into contact with harmful chemicals. The sector you are in also needs to be considered. A nitrile glove may protect against a material in the lab, but using the same material on a construction site may require a heavy duty glove to protect additionally against cuts and abrasions.
- Avoid the use of latex – Latex is a sensitiser and can lead to skin sensitisation in many individuals. Try to find a more suitable glove that provides the same protection. Barrier creams – These can be useful as you have full use of your hands and fingers without any restrictions, but be sure to regularly reapply the barrier and moisturise the area after use, as it can strip the skin of its natural lipids. 3. Inform and train – You must inform any affected employees of the results of the risk assessment and train them in the correct use of any supplied PPE. Employees must be informed about when PPE should be checked and maintained and must know to whom any defects should be reported. 4. Consider the complete task – Protecting against a chemical but leaving room for cuts, abrasions or entanglement is insufficient. 5. If anything changes review your risk assessment and apply any additional amendments that are required.
- Barrier creams – These can be useful as you have full use of your hands and fingers without any restrictions, but be sure to regularly reapply the barrier and moisturise the area after use, as it can strip the skin of its natural lipids.
- Inform and train – You must inform any affected employees of the results of the risk assessment and train them in the correct use of any supplied PPE. Employees must be informed about when PPE should be checked and maintained and must know to whom any defects should be reported.
- Consider the complete task – Protecting against a chemical but leaving room for cuts, abrasions or entanglement is insufficient.
- If anything changes review your risk assessment and apply any additional amendments that are required.
Safety is the responsibility of everybody in the workplace. The employer must provide controls and inform and instruct employees, but employees have a legal duty to utilise this, report any defects and store equipment correctly.
Published: 04th Sep 2013 in Health and Safety International