They go hand in hand when it comes to workplace protection.
By Alexandra Walsh
Workers use their hands for just about every task, and because of this fact, injuries to the hands are quite common on the job.
Keeping hands and fingers out of harm’s way at work is critical. A serious injury to a worker’s hands or fingers results in a huge negative impact on their ability to perform and their overall quality of life. While gloves are the most common form of PPE found in any workplace, damages to the hand are still the second leading type of injury on the job.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- There are 110,000 lost-time cases due to hand injuries every year.
- A million workers are treated in an emergency room for hand injuries annually.
- As many as 70% of workers who suffered a hand injury were not wearing gloves.
- Another 30% of victims wore gloves, but their hands were damaged or not suited for the work task.
Common Types of Hand Injuries
Lacerations are the most common hand injuries in the workplace and are typically caused by sharp objects or tools. Often it turns out that inadequate or poor quality gloves are used doing an activity that involves a sharp tool.
For example, a glove made with Kevlar is effective in protecting the hand against a cutting or slicing motion—but a straight stab motion can still easily penetrate the glove. Caution needs to be used when using any tool that can easily penetrate the skin.
Crush injuries usually happen because of employees placing their hands between two objects or into a rotating piece of equipment. Pinch points on equipment or tools also commonly lead to crushed hand injuries.
Fractures occur when there is a sudden blow to the bones in the fingers or hands. Motor vehicle accidents often cause fractures to the hands. Another common cause of fractures is when an individual throws their hands out to catch themselves when falling.
Safe Work Practices
Best practices in occupational hand safety begin with workers using the right tools to remove their hands from the line of fire when doing a task that could result in injury to their hands or fingers. Using push sticks when operating a table saw is a good example of a worker removing their hands from possible danger.
Other safe practices for workers include:
- Avoiding fixed open blade knives. There are safety knives that limit the length of the exposed blade. They also have a safety feature that retracts the blade when pressure is let off the handle or switch that controls the blade.
- Never putting your hand in an area where you lose sight of your hand and cannot see it.
- Never working on an energized piece of equipment. Lock and tag out the equipment to make certain there will be no unintentional start-up while you are working on the equipment.
- Always wearing the proper gloves for whatever work task you are doing. Understand the limitations of your gloves and what work tasks they are appropriate for.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, if a workplace hazard assessment reveals that employees risk facing potential injury to their hands and arms that cannot be eliminated through engineering and work practice controls, employers must make sure employees wear the appropriate protection.
OSHA lists potential hand hazards such as skin absorbing harmful substances; chemical or thermal burns; electrical dangers; bruises and abrasions; cuts, punctures, and fractures; and amputations.
Protective equipment includes gloves, finger guards and arm coverings, or elbow-length gloves. OSHA advises that employers should explore all possible engineering and work practice controls to eliminate hazards and use PPE to provide additional protection against hazards that cannot be eliminated through other means.
There are many types of gloves available today to protect against a wide variety of hazards. The nature of the hazard and the operation involved will naturally affect which gloves to select.
The variety of potential occupational hand injuries makes selecting the right pair of gloves a challenge. It is so important that employees wear gloves specifically designed for the hazards and tasks found in their workplace because gloves designed for one function may not protect against a different function, even though they may appear to be an appropriate protective choice.
The following are examples of some factors that may influence the selection of protective gloves for a workplace.
- Types of chemicals handled
- Nature of contact (total immersion, splash)
- How long the contact lasts
- Area requiring protection (hand only, forearm, arm)
- Grip requirements (dry, wet, oily)
- Thermal protection
- Size and comfort.
Gloves made from a wide variety of materials are designed for many types of workplace hazards. In general, gloves fall into four groups:
- Gloves made of leather, canvas, or metal mesh
- Fabric and coated fabric gloves
- Chemical- and liquid-resistant gloves
- Insulating rubber gloves.
A poor fit is the main reason gloves are often removed before or while performing a job. If the gloves don’t fit properly, they don’t provide the dexterity employees need to perform their jobs.
A poor fit also compromises the protection the glove offers. When safety gloves are too big, they can get caught in tools or machinery. Jewelry such as rings do not belong on the jobsite, especially worn under gloves! They can change the fit of the glove and increase the risk of injury to the fingers.
The incorrect use of safety gloves can endanger not only the safety of the worker wearing them but even the safety of others in the area. For example, the wrong gloves incorrectly handling toxic chemicals can spread these chemicals caught on their gloves to other employees. That is why it is so vital to inspect and correctly store and care for safety work gloves.
Providing workers with gloves is only the first step to ensuring their hand safety. They also need to be trained in correct use of the gloves, learn why they are necessary, when they should be worn, and which types of gloves are right for which jobs.
Hand protection training should include information on how to properly wear, adjust, and remove the gloves, and should provide a clear picture of the gloves’ limitations. It’s also a good idea to perform a demonstration of how to spot signs of wear and tear. Training must also address proper care and maintenance, which should always be performed according to the glove manufacturer’s recommendations.
Details of training on glove use and care should be recorded, noting the date (and the date of any subsequent refreshers), who conducted it, the names of participating workers, and the topics taught. These records will help safety managers keep an eye on the program’s development, plan for updates, and evaluate its effectiveness.
Glove Use and Care
Here is a practical list of tips and reminders to keep in mind about wearing safety gloves:
- Work gloves should fit comfortably and never be too tight or too loose.
- The material in the gloves must be appropriate for the type of work performed and should stand up to the tasks involved.
- Workers should be provided all the relevant information pertaining to their gloves, including whether they are reusable.
If reusable, workers must know how long the gloves can be used. Chemical-resistant gloves can be reused but the choice to do so needs to take into consideration the gloves’ absorptive qualities; the toxicity of the chemicals they come in contact with; and the duration of exposure, storage conditions, and temperature.
- Never wash or reuse disposable gloves.
- Keep gloves clean and dry.
When stored or cleaned incorrectly, even a brand-new piece of PPE can be responsible for debilitating injuries, making proper maintenance just as important to hand safety as the gloves’ proper use
- Store gloves in appropriate conditions for their use.
Rubber-insulated gloves should be stored in a cool, dark place far from any sources of heat or steam. Nothing should be placed on top of gloves as that might distort their shape.
- Make sure backup pairs are always available in case gloves get damaged or need to be washed or dried.
- Check for holes, tears, cracks, discoloration, stiffness, and other signs of damage before each use.
A visual inspection might be enough, but sometimes depending on the type of glove, a more thorough inspection can be performed. (Filling some gloves with water can reveal pinhole leaks.)
- Replace worn or damaged gloves right away. Don’t try to fix or patch them unless the glove lends itself to repairs as certified by the manufacturer.
Training and proper use and care of safety gloves not only extends their usefulness but assures they always protect workers’ hands, and by extension, their livelihood. Safety practices for the hands should always fit like a glove.