A metal splinter puncturing an eye. Moving machinery shredding a finger. It's enough to make anyone flinch. You would think no one needs to be reminded how vulnerable eyes and hands are. But in 1993, half a million workers hurt their hands, fingers and wrists badly enough to miss at least a day of work. Nearly 90,000 lost-day eye injuries happened that year too, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Why all the injuries? After all, unlike other oft-injured body parts-backs, knees, shoulders-hands and eyes can usually be protected with the right gloves, goggles or other personal protective equipment.

Seeking answers, we studied reams of small-print statistics on eye, hand, finger and wrist injuries. The BLS data is enlightening. You can analyze accidents by event (for example, rubbed or abraded by foreign matter); source (like chips, particles or splinters); industry; and, nature (for instance, cuts and lacerations.

Prevent pain

Statistics lead to two conclusions:

  • Workers exposed to obvious hazards either neglect to wear or aren't provided with safety equipment. Probably many of the flying chips, particles and splinters causing more than 44,000 lost-workday eye injuries in 1993 could have been blocked by safety glasses, goggles, or faceshields, for instance. How many of the 130,000-plus cut or lacerated hands could have been saved by the right pair of work gloves? The numbers indicate that more thorough hazard assessments and PPE training could prevent a lot of pain and lost productivity.

  • Workers need to know accidents can happen in the strangest ways. Hand and eye injuries happened about 200 different ways in '93, according to the BLS. Some accidents are simply bizarre. Others happen when no hazard is apparent. Doors were the source of more than 11,000 hand injuries in 1993. Co-workers or other people inflicted nearly 2,000 eye injuries on workers. Vending machines caused more than 100 lost-day hand injuries. And 52 workers injured their hands while walking, according to the statistics.

  • Since hazard assessments and training can't prepare workers for every freak accident, keeping protective wear on in any work environment is the solution some propose.

"People tend to gear up when they know they're exposed to a hazard," says Tod Turriff, director of program and information service for the National Society to Prevent Blindness. "But injuries also happen to people walking through an area. Someone glances over and focuses on a welder's flash, for example. It's often the unexpected that causes injuries."

Turriff's organization encourages workers to wear eye protection near any possible hazard, not just when they're required to. But for safety managers who have a tough enough time getting workers to don proper PPE for hazardous jobs, that's sure to sound unrealistic.

This article might help your efforts to motivate employees. Statistics show how pervasive eye and hand injuries are. And we found anecdotes to bring the numbers to life.

Good habits pay

Just leaving a hazardous area doesn't mean you're free from danger, as those whose eyes have been saved by forgetting to remove their safety glasses can attest. Check out these incidences:

  • A maintenance worker who wore safety glasses with side shields whenever he worked in hazardous job areas inadvertently kept his glasses on as he left work one day. When he rounded a building, he walked eyeball-first straight into a pop-out window. The impact left a thick scratch on the glasses, and could have severely injured his eye.

  • Another serious eye injury was avoided a few months ago when a safety director wore his safety eyewear into the cafeteria to get a pot of coffee for a meeting. His eyes were saved when the glass inside his thermos shattered in his face.

  • Being in the habit of wearing safety glasses saved Leo O'Campo from blindness, too. In fact, the frames on his old safety glasses bubbled up and melted the last time O'Campo wore them, back in June. Titanium and styrene pitted the lenses and his face, except for the area around his eyes that the glasses protected. The Arizona native had just responded to a fire alarm in a giant heat exchanger at the Shell Oil facility in Saudi Arabia where he is fire chief when it exploded. Contractors had been told the equipment was decontaminated of flammable waste before they began using torches to scrap it. The accident left titanium tattoos and first, second and third degree burns over O'Campo's entire face, neck, chest and arms. In the hospital after the accident he looked like a "brisket left on a charcoal grill too long," writes his wife in a letter to The National Society to Prevent Blindness. Though O'Campo arrived on the scene of the fire without bunker gear, he happened to be wearing safety glasses, which saved his sight.

Expect anything

Dan Wolens, the chairman of the ergonomics committee for the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, is witness to countless injuries. "Nothing should be unexpected," he says. [The EHS manager] should look at the job site and be able to predict all the potential hazards associated with that job."

Some hand injuries stick in his mind:

Hypothenar Hand Syndrome, caused by a hit to the base of the hand at the wrist, is common. A worker using the palm like a hammer to whack a board into place, for example, can damage the ulnar nerve. With only one bang, the injury can keep a worker on light duty for weeks, and possibly in a splint, says Wolens.

Thrombosis, a syndrome occurring when blood vessels are damaged, is caused by the same action as Hypothenar Hand Syndrome. This injury can require surgery if a blood clot develops, says Wolens. Both of these injuries could be prevented if workers understand the risk.

The strange and the stupid

Wolens also talks about "stupid" things people do on the job. "I've seen workers shoot staples and nails into their hands and shoot nails and staples at each other thinking it's a fun game." Another problem: rings. Wearing rings while working with electronics can cause severe burns, and machinery may catch rings and cause amputations, says Wolens.

Dr. Michael I. Vender, associate chair of the ergonomics committee for the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and Kellie Truppa, the program director for Vender's practice, Hand Surgery Associates at the Arlington Work Readiness Center, know all about "unusual" injuries.

One patient, for instance, was climbing a ladder to clean a wall near a meat grinder in a processing plant. He lost his balance, fell, and jammed his arm in the grinder. The paramedics couldn't get it out, so they dismantled the cast metal machine and brought the whole grinder into the emergency room, where the doctors had no choice but to pull his arm out by force. "We've had pieces of the site come with the patient on occasion," says Truppa.

Vender and Truppa also say they see lacerations and breaks from people talking with their hands. "They just don't watch what they are doing," says Truppa. "People have not only injured themselves by bumping into things, but some have hurt others."