Because they are engaged in almost all job activities, hands are at high risk of injury in the workplace.
Some tasks, however, place our hands at higher risk than others.
In this article, I'll look at ten of the biggest hazards to workers' hands and what we can do to keep them safe.
Caught Between Pinch Points
Pinch points are basically traps for the hand. They refer to any situation where the hand or finger can get caught and pinched between two objects or two parts of a single object.
Paying attention to pinch points and being aware of them can help us prevent these types of injuries. Always be aware of your hand positioning when working around any type of equipment or machinery.
Some of the following points might seem very trivial, but when we stop thinking about our mundane tasks is precisely when we get into trouble.
- Always pay attention when reaching in something to get material for your task. There is potential for the material to shift and catch your hand or fingers. Always ensure the material is correctly chocked before reaching in to grab anything off a pile.
- When attaching any type of equipment, be mindful that this could also shift or that the attachment may not lock into place. Use tools to keep your hands away from the pinch points.
- When rigging anything, make sure your hands are clear before tightening. Wear appropriate and properly fitted leather or rigging gloves.
- Vehicle doors, cabinets, and drawers are common pinch points that are easy to overlook. Always use the handles to open and close them.
Cutting tools are used on a regular basis in almost every line of work. Hand tools with blades range from kitchen knives and office scissors to tin snips and hacksaws.
- Choose the right tool for the job and make sure the tool is the right size. A tool that is too small will require too much force to operate.
- Use tools the for the purposes they were designed. Using a pair of scissors to pry open a paint can, for example, is a good way to stab yourself.
- Keep cutting tools sharp. Dull tools result in accidents because of the force required to cut with them. Maintain tools according to the manufacturer's instructions.
- Inspect tools before each use. Make sure they are sharp, in good condition, and free of nicks or other defects. Look for split wood in the handle and any looseness around the blade.
- Carry tools safely. Don't carry sharp or pointed tools in your pocket. Use a tool kit or a tool belt. Keep the blade pointed toward the ground and away from yourself and other people. When handing a sharp tool to someone else, give it handle-first. Never toss tools to another person.
- Store cutting tools correctly. The blades should be protected from damage and the tools should be placed to prevent accidental contact with the blade. Store sharp tools separately from other tools, in racks, divided drawer trays, shadow boards, or sheaths. The points should be placed so they pose no hazard.
- Use the right PPE. When using cutting tools, wear gloves, protective clothing on your arms, and safety footwear. For some situations, protective vests and chaps will also be required. Protective clothing made of leather or even steel-reinforced fabric may be required.
(Learn more in Cut-Resistant Gloves: A Guide to Cut Resistance Levels.)
Slips, Trips, and Falls
Have you ever fallen and put your arms out to protect yourself when falling? We do it instinctively - and it puts our hands and arms at risk of breaking.
When you are about to walk on a surface you suspect will be hazardous, you need to approach these areas a little differently. If you are heading out in icy conditions, wear traction aids to prevent slipping and walk with smaller steps (sort of like a penguin).
Housekeeping is also very important. Always keep the area clear of debris that doesn’t need to be there and make sure there are clear paths to travel within the work area so there is no chance of tripping and falling.
Repetitive Stress Hazards
Most people now are keyboard warriors and spend quite a bit of time on the computer typing or doing data entry. These tasks can result in repetitive strain injuries. These injuries have also been tied to heavy equipment operation and carpentry.
Repetitive stress injuries may not be apparent at first, but they can become disabling over time. Carpal tunnel syndrome, for instance, is caused by repeated motions of the hand and wrist. The symptoms progress from slight discomfort to severe pain and inability to use your hands. Often, they're only noticeable when they wake you during the night, but they can progress to the point where you can no longer continue with your work.
Here are some tips for preventing carpal tunnel syndrome:
- Work with your wrist in a relaxed, straight, "neutral" position. Try not to bend your wrist when doing repetitive tasks.
- Take regular short breaks to rest your hands. If possible, organize your work so you can vary your tasks throughout the shift.
- Avoid placing force on your hands, particularly when your wrist is bent.
- Do not allow impact on the palm of your hand. A tool such as a screwdriver should be long enough so it extends beyond the palm of the hand. Make sure any impact is distributed through a large part of your hand, not just the center of your hand.
(Learn about the Top Ergonomic Issues in the Workplace.)
Hand accidents can be minor, like hitting a thumb with a hammer, or they can be terrible, like getting it caught and crushed in a pair of rollers or cut off by a spinning blade.
A line of fire occurs when a part of your body is in the way of an object that can move and possibly make contact with it. It could be moving object like a door and door frame or a circular saw in motion next to a solid surface. You could lose your hand if you are in the line of fire a rotating chain and sprocket.
These might sound like rare events, but they're not. Make sure you identify and protect against the line-of-fire hazards in your workplace and work tasks. And make sure you don't create any – make sure everyone else's feet and hands are out of the way when you set down a load.
Heavy and moving machinery present far more serious line of fire risks. Respect the danger zones and keep a healthy distance from equipment.
A key part of protection from equipment line of fire is to use machine guards. Know their purpose, use them properly, and make sure they are functioning correctly. Machine guards should be in place before you operate any equipment.
Defective Equipment Hazards
Defective tools and equipment can cause serious and painful injuries. If a tool is defective in some way, do not use it.
- Never use a defective tool.
- Double check all tools prior to use.
- Defective tools must be tagged out of service and repairs to be made by competent personnel.
- Powered and pneumatic tools require skill and complete attention on the part of the user even when they are in good condition. Be especially mindful of potential defects in these.
Watch for problems like:
- Broken or inoperative machine guards.
- Insufficient or improper grounding due to damage on double insulated tools.
- No ground wire.
- Power switch not in good order.
- Tool blade is cracked.
- The wrong grinder wheel is being used.
- The guard has been wedged back on a power saw.
(Learn more in 6 Things to Look for When Selecting Machine Guards.)
Rotating/Moving Equipment Hazards
Machines in the workplace operate with enough power and speed to move, cut, press, punch, or slice tough heavy materials such as plastic, wood, or metal. The human body doesn't stand a chance.
Rotating machine parts can catch and crush in an instant. For this reason, you must never work around them with loose clothing, dangling jewelry, or unrestrained long hair. Many fatal incidents have happened when a sleeve touched a moving part, pulling the person into the powerful equipment. Rings can also catch in rotating equipment. A loosely fitted glove brushed against the machine can became entangled.
These precautions can help prevent such an incident:
- Wear snug clothing when working around moving machinery. Button sleeves and tuck in shirts and pant legs.
- Do not wear jewelry. The hazards of neck chains are obvious, but even a ring can catch and result in amputation of a finger or a worse injury.
- Make sure all equipment is properly guarded. Report any missing or defective guards to your supervisor.
- Never remove or block a machine guard.
- When doing adjustments or repairs, follow correct lockout/tagout procedures, and replace guards before returning the machine to service.
- Know how to quickly locate emergency stop and start controls on all machinery in your work area.
Extreme cold weather is dangerous for those who have to work outdoors or in workplaces with poor insulation. What constitutes cold stress and its effects can vary across different areas of the world. In regions relatively unaccustomed to winter weather, near-freezing temperatures are considered factors for cold stress.
Fingers and hands exposed to the cold can become affected by frostbite. Frostbite results in a loss of feeling or color in the affected area and can permanently damage body tissues. In severe cases, amputation is required.
To protect employees from cold stress:
- Schedule work in cold areas for warmer months
- Schedule work for the warmer part of the day
- Provide cold-resistant gloves or glove liners
- Consider erecting windbreaks or enclosures.
- Include a thermometer and chemical hot packs in first-aid kits.
- Provide training on cold stress
(Learn how to Manage Cold Stress with the Proper Winter PPE.)
Chemical, Electrical, and Pressure Hazards
Workers may be exposed to chemical hazards, biological hazards, and harmful substances due to abrasive blasting, cleaning hand tools and other equipment, and applying coating, fireproofing, or insulation.
When dealing with these substances, always consult the safety data sheet for safety requirements.
Depending on the hazard, chemical-resistant or electrical-resistant gloves may be required to protect the hands. Conducting a hazard assessment will reveal what your workers need to keep their hands safe.
(Learn about Chemical-Resistant Glove Materials.)
When working at the same task day after day, it can be easy to stop paying complete attention. Sometimes, we're so focused on finishing the job that we forget to be mindful of every little step it takes to get to that goal. In those cases, we can make mistakes or miss what seems like an obvious hazard.
It can be difficult to sustain our focus for a whole work shift, and that's not a problem we can solve with PPE. If you find yourself in this situation, try the four-second reset. Sometimes, all it takes to attune yourself to the hazards around you is to take a big breath to get back to the right mindset.