Hand Safety in Simple Steps

When it comes to workplace hand injuries, some industries are more dangerous than others. What are you doing to keep your workforce safe?

Do you simply give employees a good pair of cut-resistant gloves and tell ’em to be careful? Are you overlooking key steps to preventing workplace hand injuries long before your employees even walk through the door?

Here is a seven-step safety approach that EHS leaders can and should take to prevent workers from becoming just another hand injury statistic.

Step 1: Eliminate the Hazard

Chances are, the idea of eliminating a workplace hazard sounds either obvious or silly to a safety professional. But the truth is, it’s the absolute easiest and best way to reduce on-the-job injuries.

So how do you go about eliminating hazards?

The first step is to see if there are any hazards that you can remove with engineering or job controls. According to OSHA, many industries have found successful ways to eliminate hazards and improve employee safety.

The agency says, “These interventions have included modifying existing equipment, making changes in work practices and purchasing new tools or other devices to assist in the production process. Making these changes has reduced physical demands, eliminated unnecessary movements, lowered injury rates and their associated workers’ compensation costs and reduced employee turnover.”

OSHA goes on to say, “Controlling a hazard at its source is the best way to protect employees.” An example of doing so would be building a barrier between the hazard and the employee (engineering control) or changing the way in which employees perform their work (administrative control).

Of course, not every hazard will be able to be eliminated. But that’s exactly what the six remaining steps are for.

Step 2: Upgrade Equipment

Using outdated equipment can increase the danger of a hazard that can’t otherwise be eliminated. Assess your workplace equipment with the help of a safety expert to determine whether upgrades or updates could help prevent injuries.

Joanne Zaraliakos, a safety supervisor at U.S. Steel Canada, observed the benefits of upgrading equipment firsthand: “U.S. Steel has also found opportunities to replace older, heavier and less ergonomically designed equipment with newer, ergonomically correct models. For example…the substitution of open blade knives with rounded-end box cutters that do not directly expose employees’ hands to the blade.”

Step 3: Re-Engineer Equipment

Engineering or administrative controls always should be considered first when seeking to eliminate workplace hazards. Some examples of this are moving employees away from noisy equipment to eliminate noise exposure, installing two-handed safety control interlocks and light curtains to stop equipment from running when hands are in a danger zone or using ventilation systems to help control or eliminate air contaminants.

“Every day, new tools are being engineered with employee input to promote correct posture and healthy movement while performing tasks,” adds Zaraliakos. “These efforts are critical to preventing repetitive motion injuries and reducing the need for employees to do ‘restricted work.'”

Step 4: Training

Notice that step four is the first step where employees actually are involved at all. Training plays a critical role in preventing workplace injuries. Safety training shows an organization’s commitment to workplace safety and encourages an organizational culture of safety.

Think outside the box when it comes to hand safety training. The secret to training success is to make training interesting enough to be memorable. During its hand safety training, U.S. Steel wanted to demonstrate to employees how serious hand injuries can be. To do this, employees were asked to perform simple daily tasks, like opening a jar of peanut butter or putting on a work shirt, without using their fingers or hands.

Always remember that training shouldn’t be a one-time affair, but an ongoing conversation between employees and safety leaders. Consider holding quarterly safety workshops or sending around monthly safety newsletters to help keep hand safety top of mind.

Step 5: Enforce Policies and Procedures

Talking about and training for safety does little good if there’s no method of enforcing policies and procedures. And although repercussions may be a necessary tactic for those who ignore safety rules, it’s rewarding good, safe behavior that EHS professionals find to be the most effective method for encouraging compliance.

We’ve seen several excellent examples this year of safety leaders recognizing individuals or groups of employees when they achieve safety milestones. Some of these include creating a new trophy or award, providing perks such as rock star parking or extra vacation time, or even hosting a steak dinner for the entire workforce.

Step 6: Provide Adequate PPE

Chance are, you’ve heard it before: Personal protective equipment (PPE) should be your last line of defense against workplace hand injuries, not your first. But that certainly doesn’t mean it’s not an essential step. In fact, 70 percent of workplace hand injuries occur because workers aren’t wearing gloves at the time of the injury.

Reluctance to wear gloves is the biggest hurdle to overcome in this step toward safety excellence. In addition to training employees on how gloves can save their digits, consider trying new gloves that better meet their needs. Bulkiness, sweating hands and lack of grip are common complaints workers cite when explaining why they choose not to wear cut-resistant gloves, for example.

Recent advancements in technology make gloves today lighter, more comfortable, more breathable and safer than ever before. For example, ultra high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) is 15 times stronger than steel and offers level 5 cut protection. New materials like UHMWPE feel cool, comfortable and lightweight, while providing resistance to cuts, abrasions, chemicals, water, humidity and UV light.

Step 7: Evaluate and revise

Safety excellence is an ongoing journey. Make it a point to evaluate what’s working and what isn’t and revise your method accordingly. In a recent article, safety consultant Joseph Werbicki spoke to this point: “The only thing that we possibly can find of value in accidents is what we can learn from them. Are operating procedures in need of change? Is training adequate? Are there uncorrected unsafe conditions or unsafe behaviors? Accident investigations are a must if we want to identify the root causes of accidents and prevent their recurrence.”

Take time to review your safety successes and failures, determine what’s driving them, and revise your safety strategy at least once a year.

Like all safety goals, achieving zero hand injuries in the workplace takes a commitment. Following the seven steps outlined here, you’ll be well on your way and your workforce will be safer, happier and more productive as a result.

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