Avoiding hand injuries is a too-often-overlooked aspect of construction safety. On most jobsites, it’s common to see construction workers working barehanded, at least for a part of their workday. (Our research yielded up one estimate that 80% do so.) Lacerations and puncture wounds, more than half of which are believed to be avoidable just by wearing gloves, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics cost the industry upwards of $400 million per year. (That figure includes medical costs, 4-5 days lost time per incident, downtime, cleanup, and legal costs).
Other types of hand injuries sustained in construction include cutting or crushing injuries resulting in amputations, abrasions, the breaking of fingers or other bones in the hand, chemical burns or dermatitis resulting from contact with certain chemicals, thermal burns, electrical burns, and the absorption through the skin of hazardous substances. And don’t forget frostbite and bites (insects, spiders, snakes, and animals) as additional dangers.
According to the CDC, work-related hand injuries result in more than 1 million emergency room visits annually (which figure includes “general industry” employees, not just construction workers). The number of “days away from work” incidents associated with hand injuries is second only to back strains and sprains.
The first line of defense against hand injuries is wearing high-quality, undamaged, properly-chosen work gloves. To effect a reduction of up to 60% in hand injuries, the gloves must fit properly, and they must actually be worn. Gloves must be inspected regularly, discarded if damaged, and replaced periodically. (Electrical and chemical protective gloves, in particular, have limited life spans).
In 1994, OSHA amended its PPE standards, by adding 29 C.F.R. § 1910.136. The impetus for the amendment was a finding that 70% of construction workers suffering hand injuries were not wearing gloves at all, and that nearly all of the remaining 30% were wearing gloves that were inadequate, damaged, or unsuited to the relevant hazard(s).
OSHA’s hand-protection standard requires employers to “select and require employees to use appropriate hand protection when employees’ hands are exposed” to a variety of hazards, and places the burden on employers to “base the selection of the appropriate hand protection on an evaluation of the performance characteristics of the hand protection relative to the task(s) to be performed, conditions present, duration of use, and the hazards and potential hazards identified.”
The challenge, obviously, is identifying hand protection that affords adequate protection against hazards likely to be encountered in your trade, without unnecessarily impeding the employees wearing them in carrying out their tasks. While OSHA assigns to the employer primary responsibility to make the risk assessment, and the selection of appropriate PPE, employees should be asked to help compile a list of tasks they perform, and the kinds of hand injuries (cuts, puncture wounds, crushing injuries, chemical burns, thermal burns, etc.) that could result.
Among the many types of safety gloves available are the following:
“Chemical-resistant” gloves are not totally and permanently chemical-proof. Different glove materials offer protection against particular types of chemicals, and, over time, the material will deteriorate, allowing chemicals to penetrate the glove. Employees need to ascertain what chemicals they can expect to be handling, and that the gloves being used are made from materials that will protect them.
Fortunately, the industry has made significant advances in recent years in improving both materials and design utilized in protective gloves. Today’s work gloves are superior (in terms of dexterity and touch sensitivity, as well as strength of materials) to the clumsy work gloves of yore. Thanks, also, to the internet, and the increased attention given to hand injuries since the 1990s, there now exist more knowledgeable, specialized vendors, and it has become easier to find help and advice in fulfilling the employer’s responsibility to assess the risks, and select suitable PPE.
Of course, while gloves are the chief component of a successful hand safety program, lacerations, broken bones, and amputations are not fully guarded against, even by the improved PPE now available.
Other safety measures that should be included in a hand safety program include, but are not limited to, training employees in the safe operation of machinery, hand tools, and power tools. It’s especially important to train employees, and to have (and enforce) work rules, on the subject of machine guards —i.e., that they must never be disabled, bypassed, or removed. Nail guns are another notorious culprit in hand injuries, and training in their safe use is also recommended.
Another thing you can do to reduce the incidence of hand injuries is to require your field employees to wear glove clips. Especially since a great majority of construction workers who wear gloves remove them to perform certain tasks, the gloves are at risk of being forgotten, or left aside, once removed. A glove clip attaches to a belt loop, harness, or belt, and workers, upon removing their gloves, should be required to put them on the glove clip. In that way, the gloves are kept close at hand (pun intended) and can be put back on, once a task requiring a high degree of dexterity, or the removal of gloves for any other reason, has been completed. One study showed that this simple and inexpensive measure can reduce hand injuries by as much as 85%. We did a quick online search, which showed glove clips available at prices between about $5 and $13 each, or as low as $2.80 apiece if purchased in bulk. They’re a good investment, and if you’re not already requiring your workers to wear them, you should give serious consideration to doing so.
Yet another thing you can do to reduce the risk of hand injuries is to train your employees to report perceived dangers to hands, especially defective, damaged, or otherwise unsafe equipment and tools. Work station housekeeping is another important item in any hand safety program. Sharp items must be disposed or stored, and chemical spills cleaned up thoroughly and promptly.
As with other varieties of injuries, the prevention of hand injuries is largely a matter of leadership and common sense. If you are fortunate enough to head up a construction company, you owe it to your employees — and to your bottom line — to provide the right PPE and training, and to promulgate and enforce appropriate work rules. Everyone in your company must be accountable, since the machinery, chemicals, electrical current, etc. on the jobsite are indifferent to worker safety, and will inflict injuries if you fail.