Every workplace has unique health and safety requirements: office settings aren’t hard-hat zones and crab fishers don’t worry about typing-related carpal tunnel syndrome. Yet hand safety is a concern regardless of environment or job type. Human hands are amazing feats of engineering with complex interactions among bones, muscles, and ligaments, but this makes them vulnerable to injury. And, if you think about it, there are hardly any jobs that can be done without the use of hands, which is why hand safety is vital for health and safety programs in every industry.
Minor injury, major impact
Minor hand injuries have a disproportionate impact compared with minor injuries elsewhere on the body. Hands are relatively delicate body parts that are always in use and easy to injure. A small cut on the skin of the leg, for example, may be a quick repair, but a cut of the same depth on a hand can cause permanent damage. Hand injuries take a long time to heal, resulting in time loss and lowered productivity. A comprehensive hand safety plan is crucial to a healthy workplace. Here’s how to get started.
Understanding your risk
Any effective hand safety program begins with a thorough understanding of the risks that are particular to your workplace. Some of these will be obvious—heavy machinery, utility knives, and power tools come to mind—but sometimes it takes a fresh look to find all the potential hazards. A great way to catch these is to do a walk-through of your facility. Watch people work and analyze their tasks. Think about what could go wrong.
Considerations for your hand safety audit include the following:
Keep in mind that any motion, when repeated over time, can cause repetitive strain. This is especially true in the hands and wrists.
- Pinch Points and Crushing Hazards
These are most evident in heavy machinery and power tools.
These are a risk with any cutting action, whether from a large machine, a handheld power tool, or a hand tool like a box cutter.
Once you think you have a comprehensive list of hazards, make sure to ask staff members if you’ve forgotten any. Your mitigation strategies will only be effective if you’ve captured all the dangers in the first place, so take the time to be thorough in this crucial first step.
One step at a time
Once you have a comprehensive list it’s time to tackle hazards. The best way to do this is systematically. The details of your plan will likely depend on several factors, including your resource constraints. These might include the following:
- A sense of urgency because of recent incidents
- Financial restraints
- A feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer number of processes that need to be examined
Let these constraints guide you as you set priorities for your hand safety plan. Maybe you’ll need to start with the least expensive remedies; maybe the areas with a history of injuries will be top priority. Some plans are grouped by task—all heavy machinery together, all laceration risks together, etc. Choose a starting point that works for you.
How will you know if your changes are effective? In the case of an injury-prone process, the obvious metric is a lowered incidence of reportables. But what about preventative measures in low-injury areas? Find a way to quantify effectiveness. That might be staff uptake of a new tool, a measure of staff morale, or overall productivity in a given department. Choose a metric ahead of time and stick to it.
Find the right equipment
Once you’ve identified your hazards, it’s time to look at what technologies exist specifically to solve that problem. The world of safety tools and PPE is always changing, so it’s likely there are new technologies out there since you last checked. If you have a list of approved vendors, ask them about what tools or PPE can solve your issues, but don’t be afraid to do your own research, too. The internet allows you to reach innovative startups with fresh ideas for hand safety.
Once you’ve narrowed down a few choices, ask for samples and set up a trialing program. Evaluation is important here, too. Do the new tools seem safer? Can you safely simulate an accident to see if the potential injuries are less severe? Do the tools affect productivity? Does the PPE cause any problems in terms of dexterity movement?
It’s also important to consider how new equipment works in conjunction with your processes. For example, a glove with higher cut-resistance will lower the chance of lacerations, but will it also limit dexterity to the point of causing other accidents? Will larger gloves pose a new hazard of poor fit that increases the chances of getting hands caught in moving machinery? For some issues like these, you’ll have to experiment and find the sweet spot.
Keep in mind that not every safety issue is solved with better equipment. Sometimes a shift in procedure can increase safety. A great example of this is proper lifting technique. To that end, you need to think about training.
The reduction in injuries is well worth any time invested in safety training. If your company’s procedures make traditional safety workshops impractical, you can still implement safety training through small-scale toolbox talks, social media reminders, or safety videos playing in break rooms. The better your employees understand the risks inherent in their jobs, the easier your job will be in terms of ensuring compliance.