Grasping Hand Safety
There are skills and strategies everyone who works with their hands can learn that can reduce hand injuries
- By Robert Pater, Ron Bowles
- Jun 01, 2009
Whatever can you do to get a
handle on safety? Specifically, to prevent injuries to
fingers, wrists, hands, and
arms that are common to many industries,
especially where people use hand tools, assemble,
work on machines, lift, load, cut,
push, pull, and more?
Hand and finger injuries can range from
persistent (bruises, pinches, lacerations,
abrasions, and strains) to severe (amputation,
dislocation, carpal tunnel syndrome,
Raynaud's Disease, and more).
In our four-plus decades of combined
experience, we've found strains and sprains
are easiest to significantly reduce. Next come
slips, trips, and falls. Hand injuries are even
more challenging, even after most companies
have done a good job of addressing
reach-in hazards and providing PPE/gloves.
So what's the underlying problem? Exposure
Consider the number of exposures. According
to numerous in-the-field professionals,
a worker might lift, use tools, push,
or pull (exposures to soft-tissue injury)
hundreds of times per day; the same person
may take thousands of steps per day. But he
will likely use his fingers and hands tens of
thousands of times, each of which brings
potential for acute or cumulative injury.
Further, the more someone engages in
any activity, the greater the risk of complacency
and the less likely he'll be fully attentive
of every movement—each of which is
an "opportunity" for injury. With so many
finger and hand movements, his Level of
Accepted Risk rises. ("It won't happen to
me. I've done this a thousand times.")
Now compound this "hand attention
deficit" with the likelihood most people are
one-side dominant to the degree they often
have minimal awareness of their "off" (nondominant)
hand. Understandably, when
people are working with their hands and
something goes wrong, they instinctively
react by extending their hands to guard
their body. This further puts their hands
at risk. And, bear in mind, there are more
effective ways for self-protection through
training to reset default reactions.
The good news is, experience has shown
it's possible to make significant improvements
in preventing hand injuries—as well as strains/sprains and slips/trips/falls—with
an approach that first puts workers in control
of their own hand safety and then reinforces
improvements in skills and actions.
Apply Strong Strategies
for a Hand Full of Results
We've found that different types of exposures
require different "solutions." In other
words, methods for helping prevent cuts
from using a box cutter are different from
those for working with a drill press. Still,
there are skills and strategies everyone who
works with their hands can learn that can
greatly prevent hand injuries:
"Awaken" workers to identify and lower
their LOAR (Level of Accepted Risk) to see
those "hidden" hazards that fall below their
"Warning Light" threshold, going beyond an
"I've always done it that way" of thinking.
Waking people up through fear or
pointed reminders has shown only limited,
short-term results. Instead, consider helping
workers learn to recognize patterns that
lead to hand injuries in their environments.
For example, people often associate lacerations
and cuts as stemming from sharp
tools, but statistics show many hand injuries
come from burrs or from equipment
that was never intended to be sharp but
developed an edge through wear.
By training people to consciously see
hazards, they can then begin to identify
Boost mental skills for directing attention.
These include learning to deliberately:
Select where to place attention; Switch attention
toward areas of greatest safety and away
from the highest hazard; Shift attention back
to tasks after being distracted; and Sustain
attention on a task, even when other sights
and sounds exert a pull away. And then Shift
attention back to tasks after being distracted
or "spacing out." Finally, to be able to Sustain
attention on a task, even when other sights
and sounds exert a pull away.
Elevate Eye-hand coordination. The
eyes physiologically lead movement. Our
eyes are always scanning our environment,
often unconsciously and in staggered
movements (called "sacchades" by neurophysiologists).
Workers can learn how to
sequence eye movements toward the safest
and most efficient chain of desired moves
to accomplish a task. These are specific
skills that need practice, much more than
just "awareness" of eye movement.
Harness the Kinesthetic Connection.
Your hand position can either be supported
or undermined by the position of your entire
body. Help workers develop an internal
"feel" for the best, most comfortable and
controlled linkages of finger, hand, wrist,
arms, shoulder, torso, hips, and legs.
Strengthen balance. Poor balance can contribute to hand injuries. For example,
this can result in employees losing control
of a tool or other object, resulting in
a crushed-by or cut-by injury. Unfirm balance
also can cause employees to reach out,
using a hand to brace their weight in order
to steady themselves, so they may potentially
place their hands in a dangerous area
(resulting in a wrist-finger-hand injury).
Go beyond just reminders and "awareness."
Emphasis has to be on developing
the specific skills needed for working safely,
not just relying on cautions and warnings
to "Pay more attention."
Raise offhand control of the non-dominant
hand during a given task. In several
types of injuries (e.g. cuts, burns, and pressure
injection), the offhand is generally at
greater risk. One reason may be that, when
fatigued, people typically lean on their offhand,
sometimes placing it in harm's way.
Similarly, people usually hold knives in
their dominant hand, making offhand cuts
Lefthanded people have many more injuries
than their righthanded counterparts,
according to research done by University of
British Columbia's Dr. Stanley Coren and
others. This, in effect, is because they live
in a world not designed for them. To accommodate
this, many lefthanded people
have learned to better use their offhand to a
higher degree than do "righties."
Consider including lefthanded representatives
on your Safety committees in order
to give needed and "other-sided" input
into procedures, training, and equipment
Promote unhampered alignment to simultaneously
improve control and reduce
accumulating forces. This also has to be kinesthetic.
It doesn't seem to work to just tell
people to "keep your wrists straight" or "in
a neutral position." Many don't know what
these words really translate to in action. Or
they forget to apply directions when they
get involved in their tasks. Remember that if
a picture is worth a thousand words, a kinesthetic
feeling is worth a million. Training
can help workers recalibrate their internal
sense of "naturally aligned" hand, wrist, and
elbow positions—all critical to preventing
both acute and cumulative injuries.
Practical Training Goes
Hand-in-Hand With Safety
High-level hand safety entails helping people
better look out for hazards, thinking differently
about where they put their hands and
how to more effectively use their hands to do
all sorts of jobs. This doesn't happen with
posters, reminders, videos, or even with a
one-shot training "program." Everyone needs
ongoing retraining and coaching. And this
doesn't have to take an exorbitant amount
of time. Rather, this can be woven into the
normal workday by the informal communications
of trained peer Safety trainers.
Hand injuries happen in all kinds of
work. But you can grasp real and signifi-
cant improvements in hand safety with a
concrete approach founded on developing
the right (and left) mental and physical
This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.