Did you know that at least 20 per cent of work accidents affect workers’ hands? Thus, it isn’t surprising to think that we may all know (or know of) someone with a part of their hand amputated.
In order to ensure most workers’ safety, we should start referring to the hierarchy of controls. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention1 explains each part of this pyramid as illustrated:
The first thing that comes to mind when we think about hand safety is gloves, but this should be our last consideration. For instance, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention explains each part of the Hierarchy of Controls pyramid.
Elimination and Substitution
Elimination and substitution, while most effective at reducing hazards, also tend to be the most difficult to implement in an existing process. If the process is still at the design or development stage, elimination and substitution of hazards may be inexpensive and simple to implement. For an existing process, major changes in equipment and procedures may be required to eliminate or substitute for a hazard.
Engineering controls are favoured over administrative and personal protective equipment (PPE) for controlling existing worker exposures in the workplace because they are designed to remove the hazard at the source before it comes in contact with the worker. Well-designed engineering controls can be highly effective in protecting workers and will typically be independent of worker interactions to provide this high level of protection. The initial cost of engineering controls can be higher than the cost of administrative controls or PPE, but over the longer term, operating costs are frequently lower, and in some instances, can provide a cost savings in other areas of the process.
Administrative controls and PPE
Administrative controls and PPE are frequently used with existing processes where hazards are not particularly well controlled. Administrative controls and PPE programmes may be relatively inexpensive to establish but, over the long term, can be very costly to sustain. These methods for protecting workers have also proven to be less effective than other measures, requiring significant effort by the affected workers, but we will talk about PPE in detail later in this article.
“administrative controls and PPE programmes may be relatively inexpensive”
Now we can’t forget about ergonomics since there are still many repetitive jobs out there can cause injuries such as repetitive strain. Employees need to take regular breaks from work to stretch their wrists, hands, and fingers. Most experts you consult will tell you that these following activities can dramatically reduce risk of injury from repetitive tasks.
Stretching is a simple action that can quickly provide hands with a break from work, and that workers can do to avoid pain and injury. Basic stretches are a good place to start, and for many they will be all you need. You shouldn’t feel pain when stretching, so don’t push beyond your limits. Always consult your doctor if you are concerned.
Start by making a fist by wrapping your thumb across your fingers and hold for 10 seconds. Release your fist slowly, opening your hand wide like a flower blooming, and hold for another 10 seconds. You can repeat this a few times for each hand as feels comfortable.
A five-finger desk stretch
Using a solid surface like a desk, start with your index fingertip resting on the edge and keep your finger straight. Push down slowly until your finger bends back, but not painfully and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat this for all your fingers up until the thumb. You can do the same steps as before for the thumb, but as it’s opposable, try and rotate your hand a little to get a wider stretch. Don’t forget to switch hands and get all your fingers.
Crouching tiger, sleeping hand
Pretend you are in your favourite martial arts film and extend your arm in front of you, palm facing out. Relax your wrist and point your fingers down towards the floor so that your hand looks like it is ‘sleeping’. With your other free hand, grab all four fingers and gently pull them towards you and hold for 20 seconds, or until it becomes uncomfortable. Then, flip your hand palm-up, keeping it parallel to your body, and stretch your fingers to the ground so that your hand looks like it is ‘sleeping’ once again. Gently pull your fingers toward you with your free hand and try and hold for 20 seconds.
The de-stress ball
Grab your favourite stress ball or tennis ball and squeeze it as hard as you can in your hand for 10 seconds and then release slowly. Try to do a few sets for each hand. This is a great stretch to build grip strength.
Fingers locked and loaded
For this stretch, ‘lock’ your fingers together and stretch your palms open so that they face out. Stretch away from you until your elbows also ‘lock’ and hold for 20 seconds or until it’s uncomfortable. Then, take your ‘loaded’ stretch and swing your arms to hold above your head for another 20 seconds if you can.
“the most common hazards are ones you don’t notice until it’s too late”
Common hand hazards
The most common hazards are ones you may not even notice until it’s too late, such as rotating parts, pinch points, entanglement, automation, and hot and cold spots. Each comes with its own set of potential injuries which can more often than not be easily avoided. Let’s explore these in detail.
Types of machines that use rotating motions include spindles, fans, and clutches. Loose-fitting gloves can accidentally feed into this kind of machinery, taking a worker’s hand with it which often results in a serious hand injury.
Pinch points, as their name suggests, are places where hands can get caught. They are usually found between two objects, such as a machine with two constantly moving parts.
Moving machinery is a magnet for loose items, such as jewellery, loose clothing, or personal protective equipment. These items can easily get caught in the moving parts and pull an appendage or hand into the equipment risking serious injury.
A machine programmed to start on its own is dangerous even if it’s not running. For whatever reason, these machines can start up without warning and easily catch the hands of a worker who is too close and not paying attention, potentially resulting in both hand and arm injuries.
Hot and cold spots
Equipment such as injection moulders and welding instruments are subject to ‘hot spots’ where the temperature of particular parts reaches very high temperatures, enough to cause serious burns if touched. The same can be said for burners and cutting and brazing equipment. Extreme cold temperatures can also cause severe burns, so you must be equally cautious with equipment such as the transfer pipes in refrigeration systems.
“prolonged exposure to vibration can cause hand-arm vibration syndrome”
Gloves and PPE
Failing to eliminate the above hazards, our last line of protection will be hand protective equipment, which is typically some form of glove. The most commonly found glove types and their uses2 are listed below:
- Fabric or cotton
- Coated fabric
- Latex and nitrile
- Impact and vibration-resistant
- Chemical and liquid-resistant:
- Butyl rubber
- Natural latex and rubber
- Nitrile rubber
Fabric or cotton
Fabric and cotton gloves act as a lightweight layer between the worker’s skin and what they are handling. These gloves serve to keep hands clean and to prevent minor abrasions, and provide minimal protection against jagged materials, open flames, etc.
These gloves are also perfect to wear inside larger safety gloves to provide extra warmth.
Coated fabric gloves are considered general-purpose gloves as they offer a higher level of cut resistance and have a better chemical resistance as opposed to regular fabric gloves. Although, they are not a substitute for a dedicated chemical glove. As the coating scan be made from a wide variety of materials, a risk assessment is essential for selecting the right coating for the job. Keep in mind that these gloves provide less insulation than uncoated gloves and some coatings are known to become rigid in colder temperatures.
Latex and nitrile
Gloves made of latex and nitrile are widely used in laboratories and healthcare as they offer superior protection against biohazards, oils, solvents, grease, and chemicals. They do not, however, provide adequate protection against punctures or abrasive surfaces. Getting the correct size is essential to achieving a tight fit, which allows for greater dexterity in manipulating small items and precision work.
Leather gloves are ideal for workers who require a better grip for the work they undertake. These gloves offer spark resistance and protection against sharp or abrasive surfaces. Leather gloves also offer moderate levels of heat protection, such as from welding or friction burns.
These gloves are highly durable when cared for but can harden when exposed to excess heat. Leather can also dry out hands if worn for extended periods without a liner.
The insulating and reflective properties of aluminised gloves make them ideal for welding operations, furnace and foundry work, and when using high-heat ovens. They are built for heavy-weight heat resistance and provide protection up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Kevlar is a heat-resistant para-aramid synthetic fibre that gets its strength from a molecular structure of many inter-chain bonds. As a glove, Kevlar is lightweight and durable with superior resistance to cuts and abrasions and can also support gloves with less cut resistance as a liner.
As their name suggests, puncture-resistant gloves are dedicated specifically to preventing a puncture to the hands. These gloves are woven with a scale- or flake-like structure, like fish skin, to prevent penetration from needles, shards, and other puncture hazards. They can also be woven with Kevlar to achieve a similar result.
Impact and vibration-resistant
Prolonged exposure to vibration can cause harm in the form of chronic conditions such as hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS). Specific impact absorbing gloves can offer protection against vibrations and their long-term effects. Vibration-resistant gloves are prevalent in fabrication work, and in the construction and automotive industries, where machinery and tools might be used for extended periods.
Chemical and liquid-resistant:
Butyl rubber gloves are both chemical and liquid resistant and are typically used when workers are expected to be in constant contact with a chemical material. Their liquid-resistant properties mean they also resist water and steam.
They are ideal for protection against materials such as:
- Ketones, esters, alcohols
- Nitric acid
- Sulfuric acid
- Hydrochloric acid
Natural latex and rubber
Latex and rubber gloves are also chemical and liquid resistant, but they are only intended for accidental or minor contact. Because of this, they are ideal for handling biological hazards or water-based liquids.
Neoprene makes for a more robust glove ideally intended for extended contact with corrosive materials such as acids, bases, alcohols, fuels, peroxides, etc.
Nitrile rubber gloves are versatile and general-use making them ideal disposable incidental contact gloves. Their thicker nitrile counterparts can, however, be used for extended contact situations and can protect against solvents, petroleum oils, gasoline, greases, some acids, and bases.
International glove standards
The following table shows the current regulations for safety gloves in the workplace and what protection each regulation ensures.
How to choose the right glove?
The following criteria must be considered when selecting the right type of glove.
Size and fit: small gloves may tear while large gloves can affect dexterity.
Protection versus dexterity: sometimes a trade-off between these two factors is unavoidable and you will need to determine how to prioritise them.
Protection levels: gloves offer varying levels of protection against a given hazard and you must ensure that the glove meets the required level for the task.
Wear and tear: always check gloves for signs of physical damage, such as tears, discoloration, or swelling.
Expiration: never use a safety glove past its expiration date.
How do I keep my hands safe?
Using gloves as PPE isn’t a catch-all solution to keeping your hands safe. Remembering the Hierarchy of Controls, elimination should always be your first choice as a safety measure. Where this cannot be avoided, the following nine rules on hand safety, as devised and recommended by JJ White3, expertly summarise the steps you can take to minimise the risks to your hands:
- Always stay alert and focused on keeping your hands safe – not just at the start of work or a task.
- Keep guards on machinery and power tools in place – Don’t remove or reposition them.
- Use tools and equipment designed for the work being performed and use them as instructed by the manufacturer.
- Don’t put your hands or fingers near the moving parts of a power tool or equipment. Make sure machinery, equipment and power tools are completely off before you try replacing, cleaning or repairing parts – follow lock-out/tag-out procedures.
- Identify safety features on tools and equipment before you use them, such as emergency off switches.
- Check tools and equipment to make sure they are in proper working order before beginning a task.
- Keep hands and fingers away from sharp edges (blades, protruding nails, etc.). Never cut toward the palm of your hand.
- Select hand tools that are ergonomic for your hand (the right size, lowest weight, and have features such as grips, anti-vibration handles, handles angles that allow you to work without your wrist bent.)
- Wear gloves that fit your hand and are right for the work being performed.