Getting a Firm Grasp on Hand Protection
Hand protection in the construction industry is critical, and getting it right goes a lot deeper than ‘just wear gloves.’
- By Randy DeVaul
- Nov 08, 2023
Ask someone in the construction industry for the best way to protect hands from construction hazards, and you’ll hear a common but insufficient response: “Just wear gloves.” It’s flippant and incomplete, but unfortunately that’s where conversations usually stop.
There isn’t enough thought given to the types of construction tasks being performed or hazards being encountered. “Construction” gloves are either provided by the employer or purchased on the worker’s own dime to protect their hands when performing construction-related tasks. Such “protection” is akin to wearing safety glasses when using liquid caustic cleaner, or wearing leather work shoes when working in standing water—you’re technically wearing PPE, but not very effective ones.
This is an unfortunate attitude, given that hand injuries account for over 30 percent of all reported injuries across various injuries. And a staggering 75 percent of these injuries result in partial or total disability.
Take a moment to think what it would be like to lose the use of your fingers or your hand. In medical circles, an injury or burn to the hand is considered “critical” because of its role in executing essential daily functions. Simple everyday tasks suddenly become complicated or even impossible.
Now how willing are you to trust in “generic” gloves?
How does the need for hand protection affect employers?
Firstly, for those employers concerned with regulatory compliance, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has two standards for hand protection. The General Industry standard is OSHA 1910.138; the Construction standard is OSHA 1926.28. Summarized, both standards state that employers are required to provide “appropriate hand protection when exposed to hazards.” The key word is, of course, appropriate.
Secondly, costs of hand injuries in construction can escalate quickly. The average direct cost of a laceration is $10,000; if sutures are needed, add $2,000 plus indirect costs, such as lost time from work. A severed tendon can cost $70,000. A fracture with loss of function can exceed $100,000.
Don’t underestimate the additional “costs” that come with injuries: the employee’s recovery, possible loss of digit or extremity function, loss of income, increased personal/family costs and financial stressors for routine recurring expenses, and changes to the injured person’s quality of life (which may be permanent).
These losses carry over to the employer with the loss of experience, loss of production, and loss of profits. There can also be an increase in regulatory inspections, fines and penalties, and potential civil and/or criminal lawsuits, based on a regulatory agency’s investigation findings.
An employer cannot simply apply “any port in a storm” logic to PPE. They must conduct an effective risk assessment to identify the real hazards and truly effective protective or preventive measures and develop a safety mindset.
Hand Injuries Are Preventable
According to an OSHA study, more than 70+ percent of hand injuries would’ve been prevented if proper PPE (gloves) had been used. Did you catch that? Preventable: did not need to happen in the first place. Findings included people choosing to not wear PPE and others choosing to use the wrong PPE to protect them from the exposed hazards.
This statistic tells us that most hand injuries can be prevented through identifying simple solutions. An employer that subscribes to the notion that “accidents happen” and cannot be managed or controlled is a dangerous employer.
Neither employers nor employees can afford to dismiss the gravity of a hand injury—especially a preventable one.
There’s only one effective way to determine what is appropriate hand protection, and the process is no different than identifying protection measures with any other hazard. The first step is to perform a risk assessment.
This assessment can’t use a cookie-cutter template because no one PPE item works to protect against every hazard. A heavy/civil construction employer faces significantly different hand hazards than a residential construction company, which differs from a wastewater company or a utilities construction company. The risks are different, meaning the protection requirements are different.
Employers should prioritize safety—and not just for compliance reasons. It’s good business practice to protect employees from injury, which also protects profits and the company’s competitive edge.
Common Construction Hand Hazards
Here are some common hand hazards found across the construction industries that can be identified by conducting an effective risk assessment:
- Cuts/punctures/lacerations from sharp tools, nails, machinery, sheet metal/glass handling, laying tile and marble
- Abrasion, crushing, bruising from impacts and blows to the palm and back of the hand
- Chemical hazards from acids, solvents, sealants, lime and chromate in cement, paints, pesticides, asbestos, acetone, etc. resulting in chemical burns
- Cold stress from outdoor work or in extreme temperatures
- Skin absorption of harmful substances causing chemical burns
- Thermal burns from extreme temperatures
Changing conditions create changing hazards that can take a construction worker by surprise and cause an injury:
- Wet from weather or cleaning that causes loss of grip, poor dexterity, finger cramping
- Penetrating liquids soaking through the wrong type of gloves causing rash, skin irritation, chemical absorption, cold stress
- Penetrating/puncturing sharps of metal, nails, edges/corners, wood/metal splinters
- Handling masonry blocks/stone that damage gloves and abrade/cut skin
- Handling/exposed to hot material, such as tar, steam, welding, hot surfaces
- Changing tasks, such as operating equipment to loading/unloading materials to manually moving sheet metal or equipment with sharp edges without changing the gloves to match the hazards
Without a thorough risk assessment, hazards and exposures can be missed and endanger employees with improper or lack of the right PPE. This assessment results in identifying the various types of glove materials and selecting the right protection level matching the hazard.
Selecting Gloves Suited for Different Hazards
It’s important to pairing the right glove with the appropriate hazard. Common glove materials include:
- Cotton/fabric – thin, breathable layer for keeping hands clean or as a liner to provide warmth under an external glove
- Coated fabric gloves – offer limited protection from alkaline exposures with concrete or chemical resistance for short/limited exposures
- Latex or Nitrile – protects skin from oils, solvents, grease, or biohazards
- Leather – provide moderate heat protection, durable; not intended for wet/chemical conditions
- Kevlar® or aramids – provides heat resistance and cut resistance
- Impact/Vibration-resistant – for use with pneumatic or vibrating tools, grinding, mechanical work
- Chemical and liquid-resistant – with a variety of coatings for specific chemical/liquid applications
- Cut/puncture-resistant – different materials provide different levels or degrees of protection, including layers of Kevlar, stainless steel weaves, and exterior coatings that reinforce the resistance layers
- High-visibility – made from various materials, these gloves are needed in conditions where seeing people’s fingers and hands during movement is critical. Examples include gas/oil drilling and rigs, crane operations, pipefitting tasks, and many others.
Once you know the hazards, you can select the right material for optimum skin and hand protection. In addition to the material, proper fit is important along with additional needs for dexterity, grip, and durability.
There are plenty of options, designs, styles, and brands to choose from. Here are some strategies to help you find the right glove on your first attempt:
- Engage with your safety distributor: Relying on the expertise and experience of your distributor can introduce you to the latest technology and styles that align with your specific needs.
- Partner with your PPE manufacturer: Discussing the task and potential exposures with the manufacturer enables them to offer tailored options that match the hazards.
- Consider manufacturer programs that provide samples for trial, expert site assessments, and detailed reports with PPE recommendations. The right vendor will help you assess your challenges or opportunities for improvement and try solutions based on your needs at no cost to you. This lets you select, purchase, and inventory the right PPE the first time rather than through trial and error. You can be confident in knowing your PPE meets OSHA’s “appropriate hand protection” requirements while ensuring your employees have PPE that offers protection, form, fit, and function.
Hand injuries are common in the construction industry and are preventable when using the right PPE. Hand injuries are costly to both the injured and the employer, but exposures to hazards can be reduced through an effective risk assessment followed by proper selection of PPE.
Safety distributors and PPE manufacturers like Mechanix Wear provide invaluable expertise and valuable insights into your PPE needs. They offer programs that will protect your employees and save you money on injuries and inventory. You don’t need to be a research professional when you engage and partner with people already aware and knowledgeable of your PPE needs. All you need to do is reach out and ask.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.