Getting a handle on work-related hand injuries

September 25, 2003
By: Ashok Shah

The hand is one of the most complex parts of your body. It enables you to execute simple or complex jobs that cannot be performed by any other part of the body. Without your hands, it would be extremely difficult to do even those routine tasks that we take for granted every day.

Of the 3.6 million work-related injuries treated annually in emergency rooms across the U.S., hands and fingers are the most commonly treated body parts, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than 90 percent of all acute injuries in the workplace are caused by human error, not equipment failure.

Preventing work-related hand injuries requires a corporate and management commitment to safety and a safety program that actively engages employees and addresses all potential hazards.

Creating a Safety Culture

Commitment of senior management is a crucial element in implementing safety in the workplace. A safety officer or a safety team can be taken seriously only when senior management is involved in the day-to-day operations of the team.

Corporate culture plays a big role in the success of a safety program. Does the organization as a whole see the value in a safety program? Does it have zero tolerance of unsafe practices? Does it continually strive to improve safety?

Corporations who see safety programs as something nice to have as long as it doesn't cost anything need only look at the free "$afety pays" software program provided by OSHA to see the value in a safety program. This program predicts the cost of an accident and can be viewed at OSHA's data suggests $4.00 to $6.00 can be saved for every $1.00 invested in a safety program. An investment in safety makes good business sense.

Beware of Machines that Bite

To avoid hand injuries, management and employees must know the hazards and dangers in the job being performed. The machinery, the produced parts, and the process need to be scrutinized and every potential hazard analyzed. Management should conduct a full survey of the plant operations. In addition, hand accident reports, injury reports, job safety analysis reports, insurance loss runs, the National Safety Council Root Cause form, and OSHA-logs should be examined to identify areas that present hazards. Hazards can come from high temperatures, chemicals, welding or plasma fumes, dust, sharp metal edges or objects, pinch points at operating machines, and electrical systems.

Following these guidelines should help reduce hand injuries:

Assessing Hazards
Minimizing Hazards
Modifying Contributing Factors
Training Employees
Protecting Hands
Compare and Selecting Gloves

Assessing Hazards

A hazard assessment will determine the risk of exposure to hands and will result in a safer work environment when the dangers are identified and minimized.

Hazards can be evaluated using ANSI B11-TR3 (2000) risk assessment and reduction guidelines to estimate, evaluate, and reduce risks associated with machine tools, which can be found at the www.ansi.organd This document, which is published by the Association for Manufacturing Technologies, (AMT), provides the procedures and methods to assess the risks associated with the design, construction, care, and use of machine tools. It serves as a guideline to users by providing a framework to identify tasks and hazards. The user also can utilize this tool to estimate, evaluate, reduce, and document the risks associated with these hazards under the various conditions of the machine or system.

Minimizing Hazards

Involving workers in minimizing hazards is critical. They know the equipment, tools, procedures, and demands of the job and are more likely to buy in to a safety measure that they helped determine and believe will work. Without their input and involvement, a safety program will not be successful. Also, anyone who might come in contact with the machine (hazards) should be involved in deciding how to safeguard workers from the hazards.

Machine guards, lockout/tag out procedures, removing pinch point and sharp edges from the workplace, safe work procedures, and safety training programs will reduce hand injuries. OSHA provides excellent guidelines for designing guards and barriers at

Redesigning the machine or work environment to prevent employee exposure to the potential hazard can reduce injuries.

An understanding of the human capacity for lifting, repetition, reaching, bending, and strenuous work, along with ergonomic principles, will help in determining work procedures to minimize hazards. Companies should have guidelines for each job and specify the physical capabilities required.

Identifying and dealing with barriers to continuous improvement also will reduce the likelihood of injuries.

Modifying Contributing Factors

It is senior management's responsibility to identity and modify factors that can cause careless hand injuries—lack of awareness, boredom, disregard of safety procedures, and being distracted from the job task. Many hand injuries happen due to workers becoming complacent because of repetitive tasks, fatigue, frustration, and boredom.

Training and Equipping Employees

Senior management must take the following steps to train employees:

  1. Develop and deliver training. Workers need to be given adequate instruction in general safe working practices so that they are not a danger to themselves or others.
  2. Provide the correct tools and protective equipment for each task the workers have to perform.
  3. Instruct workers in the correct way of working at a particular job along with the safe operating procedures that need to be followed.
  4. Supervise newly trained staff until they are skilled enough to work safely at full production rate.

Protecting Hands

The combination of running machinery and hands equals a risk for hand injury, period. Gloves or other personal protective equipment cannot eliminate that hazard completely. These items should be the last defense against hazards after all safety measures have been taken.

Assessing the need for Personal Protective equipment: A guide for the small business employee, OSHA publication 3151 (2000), is an excellent source to evaluate the need for hand protection and personal protective equipment.

U.S Department of Labor, Regulations (standards-29 CFR) Hand Protection–1910.138 mandates employers to select and require employees to use appropriate hand protection when employees' hands are exposed to hazards. Selections are based on conditions present, duration of use, hazards, and potential hazards. These hazards include hand hazards and potential hand hazards from skin absorption of harmful substances, severe cuts or lacerations, severe abrasions, punctures, chemical burns, thermal burns, and harmful temperature extremes.

Gloves often are relied upon to prevent cuts, abrasions, burns, and skin contact with chemicals that are capable of causing local or systematic effects following dermal exposure.

Comparing and Selecting Gloves

It is important to know the performance characteristics of gloves relative to the specific hazards anticipated—chemical hazards, cut hazards, flame hazards, and others. Using standard test procedures, an employer can assess these performance characteristics. Before purchasing gloves, the employer should request documentation from the manufacturer that the gloves meet the appropriate test standard(s) for the hazard(s) anticipated.

OSHA is unaware of any gloves that provide protection against all potential hand hazards. Commonly available glove materials provide only limited protection against many chemicals. Therefore, it is important to select the most appropriate glove for a particular application, determine how it can be worn, and whether it can be reused.

Gloves protect the hands from different types of hazards, including chemicals, biological contaminates, and general abuse from handling materials. They can be categorized by type: general purpose, abrasion protection and grip, cut-resistant, puncture-resistant, cold and heat protection, and chemical-resistant.

Cloth or canvas gloves are most effective in protecting hands against dirt, rough surfaces, wood slivers, and some temperature ranges. Leather gloves will protect hands against sparks, chips, ragged and jagged edges, and moderate heat.

Electrical rubber gloves are designed for electrical work. Metal mesh gloves are designed for working with tools having sharp blades, sheet metal, or any other surface that can cut. They are not to be used for electrical work.

Aluminized gloves will protect against flames and extremely high temperatures.

Impervious gloves—neoprene, latex, vinyl, and PVC—are designed for handling chemicals and hazardous substances that may damage the skin. Since there are so many different types of impervious gloves it is important to make sure that the one you choose will protect against the substances with which you are working.

Gloves made from Dupont's Kevlar® brand fiber are strong and lightweight. They are great protection against cuts without diminishing manual dexterity or flexibility. Gloves made from Honeywell's Spectra® 900 fibers are ultra-high strength and lightweight.

When selecting gloves:

  1. Select protective hand wear designed for a specific operation or hazard. Gloves must meet OSHA standards. Too often incorrect protection is worn.
  2. Fit the user with the protective device and give instructions on care and use of the gloves.
  3. Make sure the gloves fit comfortably.
  4. Understand all the warning labels and glove limitations. Make sure the wearer understands them as well.
  5. Determine how long the gloves can be worn and whether they can be reused. Know the performance characteristics of the gloves relative to the specific hazards anticipated. It is more effective to regularly use and replace less expensive gloves rather than to reuse expensive gloves.
  6. Study the work activities of the employee to determine the degree of dexterity required and the degree of exposure to the hazard. In addition, the duration and frequency of use, and the physical stresses that will be applied to the gloves should also be taken into consideration.
  7. Ask workers to help in the selection process. Workers are far more likely to use the gloves properly if they help select them. Once provided, glove-use needs to be monitored carefully if injuries are to be prevented.
  8. Make it easy for workers to replace gloves when they become worn and damaged.

Removing hazards from the work area, introducing ergonomically sound work rules, initiating team efforts between workers and senior management, implementing safety education and behavioral changes are the keys to preventing hand injuries. Gloves should be seen as a temporary solution until hazards are removed. And even then, gloves should be the last defense against hazards after all safety measures have been taken. When gloves are necessary, they should be selected carefully and used properly.

Ashok Shah

Vice President of Engineering
The Lockformer Co.
711 Ogden Ave.
Lisle, IL 60532
Phone: 630-964-8000
He also is a member of the FMA/CNA Safety Committee, and a member of ANSI-B11-12 and TR-4 committees.