The Progression of Hand Protection: Guarding Your Most Valuable Tools

The Progression of Hand Protection: Guarding Your Most Valuable Tools

Hand protection has come a long way since the first workers used their hands to operate.

There are many tools that have become invaluable to employees in a variety of industries across the decades, but one could argue that the most important tool to a worker is their hands. It is with these appendages that we are able to push, pick and pull items as well as hold other tools that can help get the job done. It is not surprising that laborers and employees through history took time to create ways to protect and guard hands in an effort to lengthen the amount of time a worker would be viable in the industry. 

In this issue’s special coverage for our 90th anniversary, OH&S will discuss common injury types, how much hand injuries cost workplaces and the history of hand protection, including the evolution of protective equipment and the advanced technology through the years. 

By the Numbers 

It doesn’t matter what your job is, you are most likely at risk of suffering a hand injury. You may be an electrician at risk of flame or shock hazards. Perhaps you are a construction worker at risk of crushing injuries or lacerations. You could even be an office employee who is at risk of carpel tunnel. Despite how common hand injuries can be, workplaces often find they are overlooking hand protection in their safety programs. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one million workers arrive at an emergency department with injuries to the hands each year. What’s more is that seventy percent of workers who experienced a hand injury were not wearing gloves and the other 30 percent had gloves on, but they were damaged or inadequate for the work task. 

These injuries and oversights are costing both the employee and the employer. Severe injuries like severed fingers and nerve damage could make it nearly impossible for a person to get back to work or even engage in recreational activities that they once loved. For employers, the average hand injury claim exceeds over $25,000 in lost wages and medical costs, according to the National Safety Council.  

Now understanding what the costs are for ignoring hand protection, let’s look into some of the most common injuries to the hand and ways you can protect against them. 

Common Injuries to the Hand 

To protect against hand injuries, you first need to be aware of what kinds of injuries are most common. Below are just a few of the many types of hand injuries an employee could sustain at work. 

Crushing injuries. One of the most common injuries to the hand is a, “crushing injury.” This type of injury can occur when the hand is crushed under something heavy, or caught between two large items that are collapsing together at a high speed. This injury usually results in sudden, intense pain followed by severe swelling. If the crush has caused any breaks in the hand, you may hear a cracking sound at the moment of impact. Workers who are at a high risk of crushing injuries are those who work with machinery, or lift heavy objects, such as construction workers, factory workers and delivery workers.  

Fractured fingers. Our fingers are the MVPs of our hands, but they are also the most fragile. Finger fractures can happen for many reasons, but when it comes to workplaces, some of the most common reasons are from misuse of power tools and accidents that result in your finger/s getting slammed in a door or cabinet. It is important to remember that because the bones of the finger are so small, no injury to them is inconsequential. Your whole hand relies on all of the tiny bones in your fingers to stay properly aligned and perform their vital functions. If one of them becomes fractured and left to heal improperly, the hand could face a loss of finger function, if not the loss of functionality in the whole hand.  

Sprains and strains. One of the top reasons why employees come to their doctors complaining of a hand injury is due to a sprain or strain. Unlike the injury types we spoke about before, sprains and strains in the hand can happen to just about any professional at work after enough repetitive motion with no breaks or exercises in between. If these injuries are left unaddressed for too long, they can progress rapidly into something more severe, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.  

Gloves, Gloves and More Gloves 

A good safety professional knows that to mitigate the risk of an injury you must first use the hierarchy of controls. These often allow for several ways of reducing the risk through elimination, substitution, engineering controls and administrative controls. These controls often do not entirely remove the hazard from the workplace, so employers must introduce personal protective equipment to the environment to protect workers. 

And what do you think of when you think of protecting your hands? Gloves. Gloves have been synonymous with hands since the Ice Age, believe it or not. According to the National Geographic, cave paintings suggest that humans once wore mittens as way to keep their hands warm against the extreme cold temperatures. From there, gloves continued to evolve, sometimes even holding extreme significance in history. Gloves were seen in royal ceremonies, such as the Coronation, which highlighted a glove made for Queen Elizabeth II. They were also a stark indication of status when it came to fashion in the early 19th century, with the middle and upper class changing out their gloves several times a day depending on their activity.  

Perhaps even more interesting than royal or fashion gloves, is the evolution in gloves made to protect a worker’s hands. One of the first modern work gloves was patented in 1896 by D.F. Morgan. The glove was created to protect the hands of laborers and rail workers such as engineers, firemen and brakemen. The glove eliminated the discomfort of previous protection workers were using by implementing a seamless palm. Following Morgan’s patent, hand protection continued to evolve. There were a number of patents filed for men who worked with jackhammers, a washable gauntlet glove, and a more general work glove which undoubtedly inspired the creation of more innovative gloves through history.  

With the continued improvement through the 1900’s, work gloves have been created to protect against many different kinds of injuries and incident types for a wide variety of industries. Now, adequate protection is not optional. Employers have a duty to provide workers with PPE to protect themselves from daily hazards on the job.  

According to OSHA Standard 1910.138(b), “Employers shall base the selection of the appropriate hand protection on an evaluation of the performance characteristics of the hand protection relative to the task(s) to be performed, conditions present, duration of use, and the hazards and potential hazards identified.” 

Employers and safety professionals can now choose gloves from materials such as latex, nitrile, leather, rubber, Kevlar and more in an effort to improve protection for a worker’s hands. Features of modern-day work gloves include resistance to impact, vibration, punctures and even liquids and chemicals.  

If there is one thing we know for sure about hand protection, it is that it will continue to evolve with technology and the ways that workers complete their job responsibilities. No matter what level of protection your workers need, you can bet that you will be able to find the perfect type of hand protection the market can offer.  

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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