The English lexicon is filled with colloquialisms that reinforce the importance of our hands. “Lend me a hand”, “idle hands are the Devil’s playground”, and “that tool will come in handy”. Even restaurants brag about their ‘hand crafted’ food, which, for the record – unless you are touching my food with some other body part – you don’t have to tell me about.
In some countries, cutting off a hand is still used as a punishment for thievery. There’s good reason that so many cultures are so obsessed with our hands; the loss of one’s hand is one of the worst, most debilitating, and crippling injuries we can suffer. Not only does it change the way we have to do the simplest tasks, but it also changes the lens through which the world views us. Ever shaken the hand of a person missing a digit? As much as you may think you wouldn’t react badly many of us would do just that.
Simply put, most of us could not do our jobs if we lost a hand, at least if we lost our dominant hand. But the loss of a hand, while extreme, is by no means the only way that a hand injury can disable us. Burns (thermal or chemical) lost fingers, cuts, fractures – the ways in which we can injure our hands are almost as plentiful as the ways in which we use them. Recently I was working as a safety consultant at a site where two men were trying to remove a metal pole from the ground. They were struggling, but I could see that it was getting loose enough that it would soon easily pull out of the ground. The one of the men put his hands on the pole and positioned himself to yank it out with brute force. The pole was rusted and had jagged metal edges, so before he grabbed it I quickly loaned him my cut resistant gloves. He thanked me and easily removed the pole without injury. The point I am making (apart from the obvious “what a great safety guy” and all around “wonderful person” I am) is that our hands provide us with such utility that it is easy to place them in jeopardy without giving it a second thought.
Our hands are essentially the tools we have with us always, and like the best tools they are expensive to repair or replace, so we had better make sure we do our utmost to keep them in good condition and above all, protected.
Here are some of the most common ways that you can protect your hands.
Gloves are the most common way of protecting your hands, particularly from cuts, but as we will see in a moment in many other cases as well. Make sure your gloves fit properly, however, as illfitting gloves can actually pose more of a danger than wearing no gloves at all. Gloves should fit snugly, but not so tightly that they restrict motion or cut off circulation.
…don’t wear gloves
And yes, despite seemingly contradicting my previous point, this is neither a trick nor error. In some cases, wearing gloves actually creates a hazard, especially when working around equipment that could pull your glove (and your fingers or hands) into the crush zone. Whether or not to wear gloves is not your decision alone. Whatever you do, stay safe, but don’t just blindly take it upon yourself to decide not to wear the gloves selected for you. If you have concerns that wearing gloves will pose a greater risk I implore you to discuss your concerns with your safety professional and your boss.
“consult the Safety Data Sheet to be certain that the gloves you select afford you proper and complete protection”
Wear the RIGHT gloves
Not all gloves are created equal. For example, cotton gloves may keep your hands clean, but they don’t do much for you if you are working at an oil and gas site where flammable liquids or even vapours can saturate your gloves, and the smallest ignition source can turn your hands into torches. When selecting the appropriate gloves be sure to consult the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) to be certain that the gloves you select afford you proper and complete protection. There are gloves that protect your hands from cuts and splinters, gloves that protect against burns from a welding operation, gloves to keep your hands from exposure to chemicals, and gloves for a specific operation.
Take care of your gloves
Like any personal protective equipment, gloves lose their ability to protect you when they fall into disrepair. Take care of your gloves and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for storing and keeping your gloves in good condition. Some gloves are disposable and should not be used more than once, but all gloves have an expected useful life. Before putting on your gloves inspect them for any signs of wear or damage. It’s also a good idea to inspect your gloves AFTER a shift to ensure that they haven’t become damaged while you worked.
Keep your hands out of pinch points or other areas where the unexpected movement of a fixture, pipe, or even a cable can crush, fracture, or sever your hand. This tip may seem like basic common sense, but all too often people lose their hands or fingers simply because they positioned their hand in the wrong place.
Remember, your hand is not a broom
Again, our hands are tools that are always available so it is very tempting to use them, for example, to sweep a workbench clean. But there can be glass shards, wood splinters, metal shavings, and well, probably not a scorpion, but a whole bunch of other stuff that we don’t want getting in our hands. Use a whisk broom or similar tool designed for this purpose, and while we’re on the subject don’t use compressed air to clean the bench, either. Too often compressed air puts something we didn’t even want on our workbench into our bodies instead.
Watch what you touch
Too many safety professionals will tell you to always hang onto the handrail when ascending or descending a staircase. Handrails are rife with bacteria, sometimes unstable or poorly maintained, and can be jagged. More importantly, handrails are not intended for continuous use. Little known fact: to properly use a hand rail, walk with your hand a few inches above the rail so that if you stumble you are able to catch yourself and avoid falling.
Wash your hands often
Many work sites are dirty and may even be contaminated by flammable liquids or caustic chemicals. Use soap and water to wash your hands. Do NOT use gasoline, a solvent, or some other flammable liquid to wash your hands. “But why on earth not?” I hear you ask.
Well, for two reasons:
- 1The vapours will likely remain on your hands and again may ignite at the slightest heat source, and
- The chemicals may enter your body through a small cut or even through your pores; it can be as dangerous as taking a small sip of the chemical.
Wash your hands correctly
I know, as if just not using gasoline wasn’t enough, I’m now demanding correct execution of the washing method to boot; all I can say is you’d be surprised how many people don’t do it right. So, before you soap up your hands and rub them together vigorously, take a moment to rinse your hands (that’s right, in water, not vodka or break fluid) for 20-30 seconds to wash away any substances that you may have accumulated on your hands without knowing it. Use the time it takes the water to heat to give your hands a good rinse. Then use soap (not soup) and hot water to vigorously wash your hands. According to the United States Center For Disease Control (CDC): “Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.”
Moisturise your hands
I can already hear it now, “I’m not using any weird smelling hand cream” and I don’t blame you. But that doesn’t obviate your need to keep your hands from drying out, cracking and becoming a convenient point of entry for bacteria or chemicals. There are some natural substances that you can use to keep your hands from becoming excessively dry, for example:
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil
- Almond oil
- Shea butter
- Cocoa butter
- Aloe vera gel
These natural materials are more or less available depending on where in the world you are working, but if you are in a particularly remote area you can soak your hands in plain water at the end of the shift. Soaking your hands also adds the benefit of freeing up small particles that might cause infection. For best results soak your hands for 20 minutes, dry them thoroughly and then apply your oil of choice.
Use the proper tool
Your hand is not a hammer so if you need a hammer go and get one. Don’t try hammering something into place with your hand.
Then use the proper tool properly
Many people injure their hands (from the skinned knuckle to the fractured hand) because they have applied too much torque to a wrench to remove a stubborn nut, or tried to use brute force to turn a rusted valve. Valves and nuts can be replaced; your hands however… well, you get the picture.
Watch your step
It may sound odd to talk about tripping in an article about hand protection, however, many people instinctively stick out their hands to break their falls. I won’t tell you that a broken hand isn’t better than a head injury or having all your teeth smashed out; however, I will tell you that avoiding tripping is better still.
Protect your hands against temperature extremes
Even though you may be working in the hot sun it’s important to protect your hands against everything from sunburn to frostbite. Sun protection makes sense, after all, many worksites are in extremely hot and sunny areas, but frostbite? It doesn’t exactly sound likely in the Middle East, yet you don’t need to be in a cold climate to get frostbite. There are liquids in pipes and that are used in industrial processes that are extremely cold; for example, liquid nitrogen or dry ice used to keep perishables cold. Very cold materials, containers, and pipes are often poorly marked allowing for unexpected contact with extreme cold. Conversely, in the sun, it’s a good idea to keep your hands covered even though it may be uncomfortably hot. Sunburn can creep up on you and continually smearing sun block on your hands isn’t practical and may even make it difficult to grasp a tool or the wrung of a ladder.
Your industry, your trade, and your assignment will determine which type of hand protection is most important, but perhaps the best protection is to know where your hands are at any given time (beyond the literal “at the end of your arms”). Too many hand injuries happen in mundane, so-called freak accidents simply because a person wasn’t aware, not just of where their hands were, but the other dangers that could injure said hands. Leaky pipes drip caustic chemicals onto unprotected hands; falling objects crush hands that were placed on a guard rail as a worker leaned casually against it. Hands are scalded by improperly labelled steam pipes. And yet as important as our hands are to both our lives and livelihoods, too many of us take their safety for granted.
The best way to protect your hands (and the rest of yourself for that matter; no
point having the safest hands in the business and then being blinded) is to quickly familiarise yourself with the dangers of your workplace BEFORE you begin working. Talk to your safety representative and the site manager to be sure you have a working knowledge of the hazards on the site and take precautions before you decide what protections you need.
Also, be mindful of the site’s work plan and any Job Hazard Analyses that have been completed, and recognise that a work site is a dynamic environment in which changes are frequent and may have far reaching implications. Check in with your supervisor, safety professional, or site manager often to see if any substantive changes to your work circumstances will require you to change the measures you must take to protect yourself.
Remember, injuries are never planned; they happen when we least expect them so paying attention to the big picture of our work environment is essential.
It’s also important to remember, no matter how carefully and safely you work, to remain situationally aware. Always be alert to your ever-changing surroundings and if you notice a condition that looks unsafe, stop work and immediately inform the safety manager and your supervisor.
There is a common misconception that “Stop Work” means that all activity grinds to an abrupt halt. This mistaken believe makes many people reluctant to exercise their stop work authority. Stop Work can be as simple as pausing to recheck the safety of your tools, equipment, or circumstance. You always have not only the right, but the responsibility, to stop work in pursuit of the cause of safety.
Safety is, after all, in your hands.