Chapter Corner

Fingers - Mind Your Digits

Posted in: Safety Corner, May/June 2016

Our hands and fingers are some of our greatest assets, which is why giving them the attention they deserve is important for a host of reasons. We use our hands and fingers to do many things on a daily basis. They pull wire, make terminations, steer vehicles, create wonderful works of art, shape and form metal and wood, and they make the impossible possible. Unfortunately, many know what it is like to not have these assets at their disposal and understand the challenges that presents.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tells us that in 2014 there were 137,440lost-time cases that resulted due to hand injuries. The BLS also reported that in 2013 that there were 139,820 lost-time cases that resulted due to hand injuries.

safety-corner-pic.gifNext to back injuries, our hands seem to be an area that can use some focus when it comes to workplace safety.

One would think that keeping track of those digits that are permanently affixed to our hands shouldn’t be all that difficult. After all, it’s not like we’re herding cats. Unfortunately, statistics tell us we need to focus in this area.

UNDERSTANDING INJURIES

The first step in this process is to understand the problem and recognize the hazards. When it comes to hand injuries, we could create the obvious laundry list of basic injuries received: Pinches, abrasions, cuts, strains, bruises, dislocations, amputations, and the infamous carpal tunnel syndrome are just a few. When I typically speak to this topic, I use my own hands as my own personal tour through the discussion. Some of us have to learn the hard way when it comes to protecting our hands. There’s a scar on my pinky finger from the stitches needed after it was pinched in an aluminum brake when I was just a kid helping my dad. There’s a scar on the back of the hand from the sharp nails of my dog, which I received while playing on the living room floor. And the two scars near my knuckle occurred when a #12, or it could have been a #14, conductor entered and exited after I cut and trimmed up the wire and slipped forward. A controlled exploration of your team’s past injuries to the hand can help us all understand that closer attention to safety around this subject is warranted.

In addition to understanding the types of hand injuries that are occurring, understanding which hand is dominant can provide more insight when compared to which hand was injured. It is more common to injure the non-dominant hand than it is the dominant hand. The cause of the injury is going to differ depending on which hand it was that was injured as well. It makes sense when you think of it with regard to the fact that we use our dominant hand to do things such as use a knife, hammer, or other tools. We are also less aware of our non-dominant hand in many instances. I have read that we more often lean on our non-dominant hand when resting, which could be the making of a recipe for an injury when you marry that with the fact that our awareness around that hand is less. It is advisable to have both left-handed and right-handed individuals on your safety review committee to ensure you have both perspectives when looking at hazards.

The other injury that can be associated with keeping our digits and hands under control is shock when our hands come in contact with energized conductors or equipment. We can’t forget the fact that our hands are the first and often only parts of our bodies inside electrical equipment.

Wrapping your head around the types of injuries occurring to your team is a starting point. The next step is to understand how they are occurring and recognizing the hazards.

RECOGNIZING THE HAZARDS

In reality, hazards to our hands are all around us, the threat may change because of our profession, but one could argue the change is not as much as you would think. Hazards range from sharp edges to lack of guarding on power tools to shock. An analysis of the types of injuries in your organization as well as the types of equipment on job sites can help uncover the hazards. In some cases, this is an area where familiarity does breed contempt, as the more someone performs an activity the greater the risk of complacency and, therefore, injury. The challenge may be our mindset and acceptance of risk, either because we have done this task so often and nothing has ever happened in the past or because it seems like a simple task and it is obvious that nothing will happen when carried out. These are very difficult challenges to address within an organization. I could argue that this type of complacent mindset is as real of a hazard as a bucket is for tripping when in the middle of a high walking traffic site.

Once you have identified the hazards, a plan of attack to address them should be put in place. There is a facet of this attack plan that is obvious through addressing direct hazards, such as a lack of shielding sharp edges and more. However, there is also a less obvious portion of this plan that needs to address complacency.

YOUR HAND PROTECTION CHECKLIST

Raise awareness of hand and finger hazards.

  • In addition to helping your team understand the obvious offenders, we should also raise awareness of the not so obvious hazards. For example, we all understand that knives and similar tools can cause lacerations and cuts, but we may not understand the fact that statistics show many injuries to the hands and fingers come from burrs and/ or equipment that was not designed to be sharp but have become sharp due to wear. Raising this awareness can help challenge those who have become complacent over the years.

  • Address the complacency tendency by engaging more with your team to identify those not so obvious hazards to the hands and fingers. Share those examples throughout your organization.

Inspect and ensure proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is available and being used.

  • Not all gloves are the same and in more ways than just size. Each individual has to understand which gloves are to be used for the various jobs being performed. Section 130.7(C)(7) of NFPA 70E 2015 tells us that “Employees shall wear rubber insulating gloves with leather protectors where there is a danger of hand injury from electric shock due to contact with energized electrical conductors or circuit parts.” This section goes further to point out that “Rubber insulating gloves shall be rated for the voltage for which the gloves will be exposed.” Not all gloves are created equal.

  • Gloves should be cared for and periodically inspected. NFPA 70E tells us that gloves should be tested before first issue and tested every six months thereafter. The governing standard for test voltage for gloves is ASTM F496, “Standard Specification for In-Service Care of Insulating Gloves and Sleeves.” Even your standard work gloves that are not used for electrical insulation should be inspected before each use. As gloves become worn they need to be replaced.

  • Remember that gloves may not be advisable when working in or around rotating equipment.

Be wise to pinch points. Look for pinch points, take pictures, and educate your team on how to recognize and address them. A photo is worth 1000 words.

Finger-safe solutions. Using, specifying, and designing around finger-safe solutions where possible is a great first step to prevent an injury opportunity from arising. Many components these days are being made to prevent fingers from coming in contact with energized parts. Leverage these types of solutions in your equipment designs and construction.

Tool modifications. Look for tools that may have been modified, such as removal of guards, shields, or other protective components. This often occurs in the field when we are trying to get a job done faster or when using the wrong tool for the job. These are bad habits that can be seen through inspection of our tools.

Keep work areas clean. If your work area is cluttered, your hands will eventually wander into an area where you cannot see the hazard or be forced into that cluttered area due to a fall or for stabilization, resulting in injury.

Equipment/machinery inspections. Before or after you have inspected your gloves to ensure they are not compromised, make an inspection of the equipment you are using. Ensure it is in good working condition before and after your tasks are completed.

Work de-energized. Make this the rule rather than the exception.

Work with your team to create your own check-list. Springboard off of the above to increase safety and reduce the incidents of injury to hands and fingers on your team.

PARTING REMARKS

Your hands are used more often than other parts of your body on a daily basis. Protect them and don’t become complacent. And as always, keep safety at the top of your list and ensure you and those around you live to see another day.

Thomas Domitrovich, P.E. manages a team of Application Engineers for the Circuit Protection Division of Eaton Corporation, specifically Eaton’s Bussmann business. Thomas is based out of St. Louis, Missouri, and has more than 25 years of experience as an Electrical Engineer. He is a LEED Accredited Professional and a licensed Professional Engineer. Thomas is active in various trade organizations and chairs committees for NEMA and IEEE. Thomas is a principal member of Code Making Panel 2 for the National Electrical Code (NFPA 70) and an Alternate member on NFPA73, both representing NEMA. Thomas is also active in state by state adoption of NFPA 70 and other building codes, working closely with review committees and other key organizations to increase safety.