You kind of take your hands for granted sometimes. Anytime you want to use your wrench or screwdriver, you just reach out and grab it without having to think about it much. I never thought I'd lose that ability. For me, what took it away was being careless on a windy day. I was standing at the back of a transport truck that had just pulled away from the dock, the open rear door caught the wind and started to slam shut. Without thinking, I tried to stop it with my hand and the door slammed right on it. My bones didn't break, but an exposed piece of metal sliced through my tendons, leaving me permanently disabled.
Almost every working person uses their hands, whether it's to steer a car, hammer in nails, or type on a computer. If your hands get damaged, chances are you won't be able to stay in the same line of work. End of story.
Hand injuries are a very serious matter, and they come in four common types::
- Traumatic Injuries – Catching, pinching, or crushing the hands or fingers; puncturing or abrasion of skin; bone fractures; and sprains
- Contact or Permeation Injuries – Chemical burns or tissue injury through contact with corrosive liquids, solvents, acids, detergents, flammable liquids, and other substances
- Repetitive Motion Injuries – Musculoskeletal disorders that come from repeated hand movements over time (learn about the Risk Factors for Developing Musculoskeletal Disorders)
- Thermal Injuries – Burns, blisters, or frostbite from directly handling substances or surfaces with extreme temperatures (e.g. removing food from ovens or freezers)
Hand Protection Standards
OSHA regulations communicate clear requirements for protecting workers’ hands. For example, section 1910.138(a) states that:
“Employers shall select and require employees to use appropriate hand protection when employees' hands are exposed to hazards such as those from skin absorption of harmful substances; severe cuts or lacerations; severe abrasions; punctures; chemical burns; thermal burns; and harmful temperature extremes."
And section 1910.138(b) tells 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.”
Tips for Keeping Hands Out of Harm's Way
Sometimes, dangers to the hand can be obvious, like when working with corrosive chemicals. But other activities can be overlooked. Digging with a shovel doesn't seem like a risk to your hands, but it delivers shock, vibration, abrasion, muscular fatigue, and can cause repetitive strain injury.
- Review and comply with regulations set out by local occupational health and safety organizations pertaining to activities and tools used
- Collect expert opinion from workplace safety specialists who have experience in physical workplace dangers. For example, are gloves needed to open and close a chain link fence? While many workers don't think twice about doing this with naked hands, the answer is yes. Since it is a work-related surface, it should be handled with gloves
- Conduct thorough ergonomic reviews of activities that may lead to long term, repetitive strain, or abrasion injuries. Lifting boxes is mostly thought of as a hazard to the employee's back, but boxes can contain sharp items or caustic fluids that can come into contact with the worker's hands if the packaging is damaged (for lifting advice, see Safe Lifting: Use Your Brain, Not Your Back)
- Review every activity and responsibility to assess its immediate and long-term danger. For example, using a keyboard and a mouse is easy, but the wrong-sized mouse or wrong desk angle can lead to carpal tunnel injury
- Report the injury potential and request protective gear and appropriate training in the safe use of tools
- Assess the speed by which work is required to be done, and determine whether excessive speed may be a contributor to injury
Workers and employers alike must regularly look at every task as if they were explaining it to a brand-new employee. Every manual task that involves the hands must have a correct method or technique. Nothing should be left to chance. Momentarily grasping something that is sharp, rusty, hot, caustic, or even alive can have long-lasting negative consequences and can even be fatal.
Look carefully, question everything, and work fast enough to get things done yet slowly enough to stay safe.