Be alert to hand hazards

January 25, 2001
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Photo: © Ted Horowitz/The Stockmarket


Two of the most intricately designed instruments that we work with are our hands. There are probably no other “tools” that could take the beatings our hands take and still carry out precision maneuvers. But most of us take our hands for granted, which can be a painful mistake when you consider that hand injuries account for roughly a third of all disabling on-the-job injuries each year.

About 80 percent of these injuries are caused by pinch points, which have a nasty habit of catching us when we aren’t looking or paying attention. Many pinch points, such as those formed by belts and pulleys, are covered with guards, which should never be removed or bypassed.

But there are other pinch points that you might not think of until the damage is done. For example, if you’re moving an object, either on a hand truck or by carrying it, make sure — before starting the job — that the doorways and aisles are wide enough to provide proper hand clearance. Be equally cautious when you set down the load, so as not to pinch fingers underneath.

Basic precautions

To avoid other hand injuries, here are 15 basic precautions you can take:

  • Keep your hands free of grease and oil. Slippery hands can get you in trouble, so if you get grease on them, clean them up right away.

  • Take time to remove or bend down protruding nails, splinters, and sharp edges on materials you’re going to be working with.

  • Don’t wear rings when you’re working. They can very easily catch on machinery and other objects, resulting in a badly cut finger or worse.

  • Never attempt to handle broken glass, nails, or other sharp objects with your bare hands. Sweep them up or wear gloves for the job.

  • Wear gloves that are clean and in good condition when working with caustic chemicals, rough surfaces, sharp instruments, and other materials that might injure your hands.

  • Use your machine to do the job it was intended for. Don’t try to squeeze an additional task out of it, or it might squeeze your hand. And don’t work on moving equipment unnecessarily. If the equipment can be stopped, do so. Working on moving equipment presents a real threat to hands and fingers.

  • Check machinery. Before you use a machine that is guarded, double-check to make sure the guard is in place and the machine is working well. Replace machine guards following repairs that require removal of guards.

  • Respect machine guards. Never put your fingers or your hands through, under, over, or around the guard, which is there for your protection.

  • Watch what you grab. How do you know for sure it isn’t red hot?

  • Keep your work area clean so you don’t place a hand in a pile and come away with a cut. Any time you’ve been working with sharp instruments, put them back in their cases, out of harm’s way.

  • Use your brain when performing housekeeping tasks. For example, don’t push trash down into a trash can with your fingers — someone else may have thrown in broken glass, hardware, or a solvent-soaked rag or towel.

  • Keep your hands clean. Mom was right — washing them often with soap and warm water helps prevent dermatitis. Barrier hand creams put on before beginning a job can also protect against skin irritants.

  • Anticipate tool problems. When using wrenches, persuaders, bars, and other hand tools with which you expect resistance, anticipate that the tool might slip or the object to which pressure is being applied may suddenly give way. Failure to anticipate such an occurrence could result in painful and serious injuries to hands and fingers.

  • Never work on equipment that has automatic startup without first de-energizing it. Eliminate the possibility of automatic startup. That’s what lockout/tagout procedures are for. And it’s very important to de-energize electrical equipment because flash burns caused by electrical equipment shorting out are an ever-present threat to hands and fingers when work around such equipment is being performed.

  • If the work being performed requires gloves, use them. Gloves offer protection from wood and metal splinters, caustics, acids, electrical burns, thermal burns, chemicals, and many other sources of injury.

    One careless moment can result in a hand injury that you might regret. Your hands are the most important tools you will ever work with, and you wouldn’t want to do without them — even for a few days while an injury heals.

    Sidebar: Choose the right gloves

    Protecting one’s hands with gloves is certainly not a new concept:

    In medieval times, knights wore armored gauntlet gloves.

    Later, bare-knuckled prizefighters discovered it was easier on both parties involved if their hands were covered when they squared off.

    And as the game of baseball developed, the fielder’s glove evolved from a skimpy piece of leather into something with considerably more padding.

    So when you wear approved work gloves while handling rough materials or lifting or moving objects, you’re in tune with tradition.

    Even though gloves are one of the best ways to protect your hands against hazards, there are times when gloves may be a hazard. When you work with moving machinery like drill presses, mills, lathes, or grinders, there is a serious risk of getting the glove caught in the machine — and taking your hand along.

    The gloves you use must protect you against the particular hazard at hand. For example:

    • Insulated gloves are designed to protect you against heat or cold. If you work around open flame, the fabric should be fire-retardant; for radiant heat, it should be reflective. Leather may also be effective for working around hot surfaces, and cotton may be sufficient if the degree of heat or cold isn’t too high.

    • Special insulated rubber gloves are required around electricity.

    • Metal mesh or other cut-resistant gloves are the best choice for handling sharp objects.

    • Leather gloves are ideal for rough surfaces.

    • Fabric gloves are good choices for handling slippery objects.

    • Neoprene or nitrile rubber gloves are needed if you work with corrosives.

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