Redefining Comfort: The Key to Understanding Non-Compliance

If we are going to truly redefine the comfort zone of today's worker, it will require technological advances to gloves along with improved education around safety practices and a far more thoughtful, proactive approach to changing behavior and breaking counterproductive habits.

Statistics on hand injuries can paint an interesting, if incomplete picture. When considering risks in the industrial workplace, non-compliance is among the most common and dangerous. Too many workers either don't wear gloves or wear the wrong gloves for the job, and there are three common reasons: (1) comfort, or more accurately, discomfort; (2) poor performance—the gloves don't provide the grip or dexterity needed to do the job well; and (3) ingrained habits.

These are powerful disincentives. Whether it's an uncomfortable chair or a pair of shoes that doesn't fit quite right, discomfort leads to change—new shoes, a different chair or, more relevant to this discussion, removing or choosing a different pair of gloves. Now imagine trying to work with tiny nuts and bolts while wearing thick, stiff gloves. Even if those gloves protect the hands from cuts, mounting frustration from dropped bolts could eventually lead even the most safety-conscious workers to doff their gloves in exasperation.

And then there's habit—a time when our mind downshifts, doing actions unconsciously. This can be a dangerous practice, especially in industrial environments—how many serious accidents have been the results of workers mindlessly repeating tasks? How ingrained are habits related to hand protection?

This all matters because workers make these sorts of choices every day. They decide either to wear gloves or remove gloves for some reason or another. Their comfort zone when it comes to PPE is formed over time and determined by familiarity and habit as much as objective data around performance and safety. To drive meaningful changes in behavior—and decrease non-compliance—not only must better gloves be provided. Workers and gatekeepers who manage PPE selection or wear gloves need education concerning worker habits and the triggers behind non-compliance.

Understanding Non-Compliance
Let's take a step back—just how dangerous is non-compliance?

Every moment a worker's hands are exposed, they are at risk. There are some two dozen bones in each hand, along with muscles, tendons, ligaments, arteries, veins and nerves—simply put, a lot can go wrong, and it can be serious. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than one million workers go to the emergency room with hand injuries each year, and about 110,000 hand injuries result in lost time.1 The average hand injury results in six days off work, the average claim is about $6,000, and the average worker’s compensation claim in $7,500. Big picture, the hands incur 13 percent of all industrial injuries, and cuts, in particular, can be costly—hitting employers with an average financial impact of almost $22,000 per incident. More specifically, the National Safety Council reports the direct cost of a laceration to the hand is $10,000 and a severed tendon more than $70,000.2

That information is not lost on PPE gatekeepers—those responsible for specifying and selecting the protective equipment for workers. The global PPE market was about $38 billion in 2015, with gloves accounting for 23 percent, or about $8.7 billion. The market is projected to exceed $68 billion by 2024.3 Purchasing PPE and getting it into the workforce is happening. So where's the disconnect? Why are there still so many hand injuries?

Inhibited by Habit
So what's habit got to do with all this? Here's a common misperception about non-compliance: according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (Occupational Safety and Health Administration/OSHA), 70 percent of workers who suffered hand injuries were not wearing gloves when they suffered the injury. The other 30 percent were wearing gloves that were inadequate, damaged or the wrong type of glove for the hazard.4

It's not that 70 percent of workers never wear gloves (OSHA puts that number at about 36 percent, still unacceptably high). No, the more significant issue is workers removing gloves at critical points throughout the workday. And that behavior can be tied to habit.

Workers may wear gloves for carrying large pieces of equipment or materials, then remove them without thinking to pick up tools or hardware. That's a holdover behavior from a time when bulky work gloves made more precise movements difficult or impossible. It's not unusual to see workers remove gloves to sign invoices or tracking documents or to check their phones, and all of those behaviors can become habitual.

Therefore, across the globe, it's in the employer's interest to carry out evaluations and determine which hand protection solutions are most appropriate for their need—taking a proactive step in eliminating the challenge factors that cause workers to habitually remove gloves in the first place. Then, employers and manufacturers can help by providing data from the various test methods to help with glove selection, and education concerning PPE compliance and habits to take proactive steps to go past simply providing the glove and instead taking actionable steps to combat poor habits and non-compliance. As such, both employers and manufactures are supporting the important focus on worker safety.

Where We Stand—and Where We Go Next
We know significant advances in technology can drive behavioral changes, so this is a positive step toward improved compliance. But better gloves are only part of the solution. To break bad habits, employers must identify and focus on keystone habits, uncovering the cues that lead workers to remove their gloves, and where possible, instilling practices that encourage higher levels of compliance.

If we are going to truly redefine the comfort zone of today's worker, it will require technological advances to gloves along with improved education around safety practices and a far more thoughtful, proactive approach to changing behavior and breaking counterproductive habits.

1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics;
2. 2014 USA National Safety Council. 2014 injury data.
4. United States Department of Labor. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 59 FR 16339 April 6, 1994 (preamble).

This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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