Hand injuries have always been a major focus for occupational health and safety. And it's easy to see why. Hand injuries are common in industries like oil and gas, transportation, heavy equipment operation, maintenance, construction, and all types of material handling.
These risks were the impetus for standards and testing methodologies for cut resistance, puncture resistance, and chemical protection. These have been in place for years worldwide, but they're far from perfect, especially since the equipment used for testing differs from one jurisdiction to the next.
(Learn more in Cut Resistant Gloves: A Guide to Cut Resistance Levels.)
Another issue has to do with a gap in standards and testing. While we have some in place for cut and puncture resistance and chemical exposure, we don't yet have any for dorsal hand protection against impact (i.e. protection from injury to the back of the hand, knuckles, and fingers).
Despite this gap, there are some promising developments. ISEA, for example, has had a working group on impact resistance for some time. In December, 2018 they wrapped up a public review of their proposed new voluntary standard.
Dorsal hand protection deserves serious attention and that's what we're going to give it in this article, along with impact resistance more generally.
Hand Injuries by the Numbers
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 916,440 reportable hand injuries to workers in private industry in 2014.
With the American workforce totaling 187 million full-time workers that year, that means there was one reportable hand injury for every 204 workers.
That's a high frequency but it looks even worse when you consider that these were only reportable incident totals and don't include an untold number of first aid only, near miss, or near hit incidents.
(Learn more about Near Misses: What They Are and Why You Should Report Them.)
And all those injuries translate to costs. The average cost to the employer for a worker hand injury now exceeds $6,000, according to figures from the BLS. And when we look at lost time workers' compensation claims for hand injuries, that number is closer to $7,500.
That $7,500 you save by preventing just one of these injuries would pay for many, many safety gloves.
Meeting the Challenge
Statistics like this show that there is significant room for improvement. Here are some of the things we'll need to bring those numbers down.
- Continue the work in PPE impact resistance design as a collaboration between manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, and purchasers
- Moving from a voluntary standard to a mandatory requirement and working to ensure consistent testing across jurisdictions
- Additional education and training developed from risk, hazard, and task analysis for hand work
- Continuous attention to task matching PPE, with additional emphasis on impact protection
- Implementing both low- and high-tech glove solutions for the entire workforce in industries where these hazards exist
- Enforcement and performance management regarding the use of these products
Mandatory Hand Protection
Why make hand protection mandatory? Simple: under the OSH law, employers have a responsibility to provide a safe workplace. It is also far more cost effective to apply controls like impact-resistant gloves to workers than it is to pay for even one serious hand injury. The cost for a single hand injury involving tendons can even exceed $70,000.
You also have to consider the "soft dollars" you'll gain from having a great PPE program element in your safety management system, the returns you'll get from building trust with your employees, the lighter administrative load you'll have from a lower turnover rate, and the benefits of having a more engaged workforce.
When it comes to hand protection, always task match. Always.
Not all PPE is created equal and hand impact protection in gloves, while not new, is still evolving. Using the wrong glove can offer too little protection or make the situation worse.
One of the worst finger pinch incidents I ever investigated involved a welder guiding a 400lb steel beam into place to tack weld. The beam slipped a little in its lifting sling and dropped about an inch, right on top of his pinkie finger. He was off work for almost a year and needed three surgeries to put in, adjust, and remove pins.
That welder was wearing welding gloves the whole time, but they weren't up to the task of protecting him from that kind of injury. The worst part is there were impact-resistant gloves with dorsal hand protection available – only they were in the tool room, not on his hands.
Safety Gloves Are Not Generic
There is no such thing as a generic safety glove. Each offers its own type of protection and benefits. Impact resistance matters, but safety gloves need other properties as well, like cut and abrasion resistance, heat resistance, or chemical protection.
(For related advice, see 12 Types of Hand Protection Gloves - And How to Choose the Right One.)
On top of that, gloves must need certain standards and legislation, including tested demonstration of not only its cut resistance and puncture resistance, but its impact protection as well.
When selecting impact-resistant gloves, look for dorsal protection and be sure to purchase from a manufacturer or distributor that meets tough manufacturing and testing standards – both voluntary and mandatory.
When your due diligence is done and you've completed your analysis of hazard and risk potentials (including tasks where impact and vibration are present), use your process and information to make informed purchasing decisions. Doing that and engaging with the manufacturer and distributor and their supply chain will create a permanent positive change in your safety management system.
Workers will use what fits and is comfortable. Make sure the gloves are sized properly and, preferably, available in multiple sizes. Workers need to be able to work with the gloves you give them, and that means they need a proper fit.
If you're a safety professional or a supplier, now is a good time to start paying attention to dorsal hand impact protection. Take the time to do it right.
Finally, remember that in certain jurisdictions, compliance with an impact resistance standard is now required.