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Getting a Grip on Hand Protection in the Oil and Gas Industry
Even under the best of conditions, our hands take a beating. We bang our knuckles changing a light bulb, cut our fingers opening the mail, and suffer all sorts of breaks and sprains playing pickup basketball or rec league softball. Life is a domesticated war zone, and our hands are on the front lines.
Nowhere is this more evident than the oil and gas industry, undeniably one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. The fatality rate is nearly eight times the national workplace average,1 and injuries are commonplace not just at drilling sites, but across the industry—including midstream (transportation) and downstream (refining) environments.
The men and women in the oil and gas industry work with heavy equipment, pipes, chains, and tools all day every day, and they do it with hands covered in oil and oil byproducts that make everything slippery and every task more difficult. This is measurable: oil can cause workers to apply 30-40 percent more effort to grip things without slipping.2 Imagine the toll that sort of extra effort must take as the hours turn into days turn into weeks. It's why slips and drops—and injuries—are inevitable and why repetitive use reactions such as carpal tunnel syndrome are relatively common (and costly; carpal tunnel issues result in an average of 25 days away from work3).
Hand protection is critical in these environments, but all gloves are not created equal—or specifically for oil and gas sites. Understanding worker needs and industry regulations (or lack thereof) and choosing a glove that delivers the comfort, performance, and protection required to be truly effective isn’t easy, but it's easier when you’re armed with the right information.
Why It Matters
Even if we stipulate the omnipresent risks in oil and gas environments, it's easy to question just how much hand injuries should be prioritized. After all, this is an industry that saw 138 workers killed on the job in 2012; are hand injuries really that costly?
The short answer? Absolutely. Impact injuries to the wrist, finger, and hand accounted for 20 percent of all body parts injured in the oil and gas industry4 from 2009 to 2013, and a single oilfield hand injury can cost a company more than $21,0005—and in some cases more.
Consider the case6 of a worker who suffered a deep cut injury that required partial amputation of his thumb. He was cleared to return to light-duty work after 14 days and normal work duties after 94 days. According to his employer, the injury resulted in direct costs, including compensation claims covering medical expenses and indemnity payments, of $24,000. That's bad enough, but the indirect costs were staggering, estimated at $120,000. These included training and compensation for a replacement worker, property repairs related to the original incident, accident investigation and corrective action, insurance coverage, schedule changes and delays, and administrative time. That brings the total to $144,000 for a hand injury, which, based on the employer-estimated margin of $5,000 per day, wiped out roughly a month's worth of profit for the site.
Another example7: An oil rig worker suffered a puncture wound when a broken wire from a steel cable poked through his glove. The relatively minor poke led to a staph infection, eventual surgical treatment, and 18 lost days before the employee returned to restricted duty for six more weeks. The costs were $80,000 direct and an estimated $400,000 indirect.
Those are two examples of injuries that likely could have been prevented with proper hand protection but instead cost employers more than $600,000. The lesson: Hand injuries aren't just inconveniences; they're serious threats to the bottom line. Employers and workers alike should act accordingly.
Hand protection in the oil and gas industry requires some consideration because of the variety of work sites and tasks and the different types of risks workers face at those sites. They fall into a few basic categories:
- Impact/crushing: The most common type of injury among oil and gas workers and the most difficult to protect against. Gloves should have bumpers in place to provide some basic protection, but the reality is these work sites often have massive, heavy pipes and equipment that render gloves irrelevant—a reality that still doesn't explain why 81 percent of injured workers say they were not wearing gloves at the time of their injury.8 Along with protection against many contusions, gloves can be valuable tools in incident prevention. High-visibility gloves help the wearer and coworkers be more aware of hand placement and avoid accidents.
- Cut/laceration: These make up 7 percent of all oil and gas injury claims and 13 percent of the injuries that are considered serious.9 As discussed earlier, these types of injuries can be quite costly, and can result in permanent loss of motion or function and can even be life-threatening10 if the cut happens to strike an artery.
- Flash fires: Already among the most dangerous types of accidents in the oil and gas industry, the risk of fire is increasing as the industry evolves. Specifically, the advent of fracking, which creates explosive gases, is making flash fires more common. Traditional flammable gloves not only fail to protect workers, but they often transport flames to other parts of the body and melt into the skin. Flame-resistant gloves are available but are too often ignored due to the lack of regulations around flame resistance.
- Chemical exposure: It's easy to forget oil is a chemical, and extended daily exposure to the skin can result in any number of adverse skin reactions. Irritations and allergies represent more than 90 percent of occupational skin diseases, with 80 percent of those affecting the hands. In 2010, there were 34,400 reported incidences of recordable occupational skin diseases, resulting in an estimated $1 billion in costs in the United States alone and €5 billion in Europe (loss of productivity included).11
- Repetitive use: Carpal tunnel syndrome is the most common example and is a frequent complication for oil and gas workers straining to maintain their grip in slippery conditions.
Choosing the Right Gloves
If all of this sounds complicated, it isn't. There are gloves designed for every job anywhere in the oil and gas industry and some that provide comprehensive protection against all of these risks. An important consideration, and one that too often is overlooked when someone who isn’t wearing the gloves handles purchasing, is comfort. These workers are human beings, and they aren't likely to wear gloves that aren’t comfortable. That, of course, defeats the purpose of providing hand protection. Gloves should be comfortable enough to wear all day, perform all the necessary tasks of a given job—enhancing grip, for example—and provide protection against the risks inherent in that job.
In some cases, those risks may be limited. There are gloves designed specifically for cut protection, and some workers may prioritize that over anything else. Same with impact protection or flame resistance. But it's also true that oil and gas workers no longer need to make those kinds of choices or compromises. There is no need to wear gloves that provide adequate grip but poor impact protection or impact protection without flame resistance. Today's technologies eliminate the need for compromise by delivering options that meet every performance and protection requirement.
Barrier technologies keep oil away from the hands, technologies and design approaches developed to help tires grip the road are being adapted to improve grip, and flame-resistant materials are providing better protection against fire. And all of these innovations are being deployed separately and together without compromising dexterity or comfort, so oil and gas workers never have to choose between protection and performance.
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012
2. "New Gloves Improve Friction Force to Ease Muscle Fatigue," http://www.ansellpro.com/main/pressRoom_whitePapers_details.asp?rId=183
3. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, "Musculoskeletal Disorders and Workplace Factors," July 1997, and Worker Health Chartbook 2004, Chapter 2
4. WorkSafeBC Business Information & Analysis, July 2013
5. National Safety Council. Source: ohsonline.com (High Risk On The Rig, Cory Houston, April 1, 2014)
8. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, March 2004
9. Out of 700 injury claims and 183 serious injury claims. WorkSafeBC Business Information & Analysis, July 2013
11. Occupational Skin Diseases Global Workshop Feb. 2011
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.