Since we use our hands for virtually everything we do, it’s easy to take them for granted. Yet their distinctive characteristics — strength, flexibility, sensitivity, and coordination — are vital, and hand protection and safety should be a major concern. Fortunately, almost all hand and finger injuries can be prevented. Here are five steps you can take:

1. Engineering controls

Devices such as machine guards are usually the first step in preventing hand and finger injuries, particularly those that result from improper use of tools and machinery or careless material handling. Many injuries occur at the point of operation on a machine or tool. For example:
  • Cutting actions on saws, drilling machines, lathes, or milling machines can cut fingers or hands — or even cut them off.
  • Punching and shearing machines like power presses, metal cutters, or shears can crush hands, break bones, and amputate hands and fingers.
  • Rotating shafts like cams, couplings, flywheels, and spindles can catch, mangle, or break fingers.
  • In-running shafts, such as nip points on belts, chains, pulleys, grinders, conveyors, or clutches can catch, mangle, or break hands.
  • Sanders can scrape the skin.
  • Pointed objects like screwdrivers, knives, punches, staples, or splinters can puncture the skin.

Guards should be installed on any machine where hands could possibly come in contact with the point of operation, or with moving parts. Guard design should ensure that there is no way for hands and fingers to get in from any angle, and that the guards don’t create their own pinch points. Guard design also has to permit machine maintenance. Too often, guards are removed for maintenance and never replaced.

Not all machines can be used with guards. One alternative is a sensor — a device that senses movement and stops the machine when someone gets too close.

Another engineering control is the lockout. Before any work is done on a machine or tool, it should be locked out and tagged, and its power disconnected.

Some jobs can be redesigned to reduce the possibility of hand and finger injuries. For example, some machines could be redesigned to feed materials in automatically.

2. Training & education

Engineering controls may not be enough. Workers have to understand the hazards in the work area and make safety part of their routine. Most machinery requires full attention to the job to stay safe — many unintended injuries are the result of carelessness or inattention. When it comes to hand safety, urge workers to keep these tips in mind:
  • Always leave machine guards in place.
  • Follow all instructions for machinery and tools.
  • Don’t wear gloves, loose cuffs, rings, watches, or other jewelry when you work with machinery.
  • Use a push stick, not your hands, to feed materials into moving machinery.
  • Keep hands away from moving machine parts.
  • Always cut away from your body.
  • Use brushes, not hands, to sweep up metal or wood chips.
  • Check for sharp edges, burrs, etc. before handling any materials.
  • Keep your hands away from pinch points when lifting an object.
  • Wipe off greasy or slippery objects before handling.
  • When stacking materials separated by spacers, keep your fingers on the sides — not the top or bottom — of the spacers.
  • Always select the proper hand tool for the job, and use it correctly.
  • Make sure tools are in good working condition before using them.
  • Store tools safely, with no sharp edges exposed.
  • Pass tools to other workers carefully, handle first. Never throw tools!

3. Protective gloves

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is an effective defense against hand and finger injuries. Gloves are usually the best choice, but they can be a hazard if worn around moving machinery such as drill presses, mills, lathes, grinders, etc.

OSHA requires employers to provide — and employees to use — gloves when there’s a risk of harmful substances, chemical or thermal burns, extreme temperatures, or severe cuts, lacerations, abrasions, or punctures (29 CFR 1910.138). No glove can provide protection from all of these hazards, so proper selection, cleaning, and maintenance is a must. Here is a list of possible hand hazards, and the usual glove material of choice for each:

  • Heat or cold usually calls for insulated gloves. Anyone who works around open flames should have gloves made of a fire-retardant fabric. If the hazard is radiant heat, the fabric should be reflective. Leather is effective against hot surfaces, and cotton or other fabrics may be adequate for moderate heat or cold.
  • Electricity requires special rubber gloves with insulated liners.
  • Sharp objects should be handled only by people wearing cut-resistant gloves, often made of metal mesh.
  • Rough surfaces call for leather gloves.
  • Corrosives need gloves made of neoprene or nitrile.
  • Slippery objects call for gloves made of cotton or other fabrics.
  • When using a chemical, select the correct glove and one that won’t react in a dangerous way with that chemical.

4. Other protections and precautions

Hand pads can be effective protection against heat, roughness, and splinters, as long as they’re not worn for delicate tasks.

Thumb or finger guards or tapes can add an extra layer of protection to particularly vulnerable fingers.

Long cuffs, wristlets, and duct tape can keep chemicals, heat, etc. from getting into the glove and onto the skin.

Barrier creams can help protect the skin in situations where gloves aren’t practical. Use only on clean skin and replenish regularly. There are other steps to take to prevent dermatitis when working with chemicals:

  • Read labels and material safety data sheets before handling or using chemicals.
  • Bandage any minor cuts or scrapes before putting on gloves to ensure that no chemicals get in them.
  • Keep chemical containers closed when not in use.
  • Wash hands frequently and thoroughly. It’s important that you don’t prolong any chemical contact and that you prevent bacteria from settling in and causing infection.

5. Exercise

Doing a few simple exercises before work and between tasks will build strength and provide a rest from repetitive motions. Rotating tasks also occasionally helps avoid problems.
  • Stretch fingers by spreading them wide apart for a few seconds, repeat three times with each hand.
  • Stretch your thumb by holding it down gently for five seconds. Repeat three times with each hand.
  • Stretch your wrist by making circles with your hands. Repeat ten times for each hand.

Sidebar: First aid

Any hand injury can turn out to be serious and should not be ignored. First aid procedures to follow until medical help arrives should be part of your hand safety training program.

Cuts: Apply direct pressure to a large or bleeding cut and elevate the hand above the shoulder. Clean a small cut with soap and warm water and cover it with a sterile bandage.

Broken bones: Keep the hand still until you can get professional help.

Amputations: Rush an amputation victim to the hospital. Put the severed body part on ice and take it to the hospital too.

Sprains: Apply cold compresses to reduce pain and swelling.

Chemical burns: Rinse with running water for at least 15 minutes.

Heat burns: Soak minor burns in cold water, then apply a sterile bandage. A burn that is charred or blistered requires medical attention.

Sidebar: Types of injuries

There are many different kinds of hand and finger injuries, but most are either traumatic injuries, contact injuries, or carpal tunnel syndrome.

Traumatic injuries include cuts, fractures, punctures, and, in the worst cases, amputations:

  • Cuts, also known as lacerations, become especially serious when they go through the skin and sever nerves or tendons, or when other materials get into the wound and infect it.
  • Punctures can be caused by anything from a splinter to a tool. A puncture can go right through the skin to tendons, ligaments, and muscle tissue, and can easily get infected.
  • Fractures, or broken bones, speak for themselves.

Contact injuries are usually dermatitis or burns. They result from direct contact with chemicals, detergents or metals, or from contact with very hot or cold objects.

Dermatitis can show up immediately after contact with a chemical. Skin becomes red, swollen, itchy, or burning, or may develop bumps, blisters, etc.

Dermatitis is often simply irritating, but bad cases can be uncomfortable enough to keep a person out of work.

Dermatitis can also develop after several contacts with chemicals known as sensitizers. While nothing happens initially, later contacts with the chemical produce an allergic reaction, such as a rash.

Carpal tunnel syndrome results from prolonged repetitive work with the hands. This condition can be permanently disabling and can have a variety of more temporary symptoms like swelling, tingling, numbness, and pain in the hands or fingers.