According to the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hand injuries account for 1,080,000 emergency department visits by workers per year in the United States. More than 110,000 days-away-from-work are estimated from hand and finger lacerations. This injury figure is second only to back strain and sprain injury, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
A study funded by the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR), Welch et al, tabulated the causes of nonfatal injuries in construction workers who were seen at George Washington University Emergency Department over a 7-year period. Patterns of injuries were tracked in order to establish prevention strategies. The individual construction trades listed in order of number of injuries included laborers, carpenters, electricians, pipe trades, supervisors and foremen, ironworkers, painters and glaziers, masons, sheet metal workers, exhibit technicians, drywall workers and plasterers, asbestos and insulation workers, roofers and water-proofers, heavy-equipment operators, welders, elevator constructors and mechanics.
This study of almost 3,000 injury cases showed that two out of three injured workers were young, below age 40. Just over half of the injured workers were members of ethnic minorities, mainly Hispanic. The leading cause of injury was contact with cutting or piercing objects, most often pieces of metal, razors and knives, power tools and nails. Fingers and hands were the most-injured body parts among the construction workers in this study, accounting for one-third of emergency room visits. About 15 percent of these injuries were amputations, partial amputations, crushes and fractures.
The Cost is High
Looking at just one sector of the construction industry, figures compiled from BLS, the National Safety Council (NSC), the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) and the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) show that road constructors pay $48 million more for hand injuries each year than the $8.3 million it would cost them to equip all 574,000 of their hazard-exposed workers with protective gloves.
While conceding that wearing abrasion- and laceration-resistant gloves will not protect against every potential hand injury, officials such as ISEA President Dan Shipp point out that data suggest that road construction companies are spending a whole lot more to cover the costs of hand injuries each year than they would pay to equip their workers properly and make sure they are wearing their gloves when they need them.
Wearing gloves decreases the risk of hand injury from lacerations and punctures, but may not protect from crushing injuries, fractures, avulsions or amputations. However, in an article in Occupational Environmental Medicine, Sorock et al released these findings from a survey of workers injured in the northeastern United States:
- 63 percent of the hand injuries were lacerations.
- Most of the injured attributed their injury to working with equipment, tools or work pieces that were not performing as expected or doing a job they were not accustomed to, being distracted or being rushed.
- Wearing gloves reduced the relative risk of injury by 60 percent.
- Workers reported that they had worn gloves only 27 percent of the work time, and only 19 percent reported wearing gloves at the time of the injury.
Better Glove Options
Numerous developments in glove manufacturing have made wearing gloves more attractive. Traditional bulky leather and polymer workhorse gloves are being replaced by a new generation of lighter weight, ergonomically designed gloves that are more accepted by workers. Workers find flat-dipped, lightly coated gloves much more comfortable and attractive because of their dexterity, which cuts down on hand fatigue. Still longwearing, today's lighter weight gloves encourage continual wear by the worker and can be worn for a broad range of uses.
Continuous wear: Although lighter, coated, thinner knit gloves are not as cut resistant as the heavier, thicker knit gloves, they more easily are worn for a variety of tasks where workers previously may have shed gloves to gain the touch sensitivity and dexterity needed to perform a task. Gloves coated with natural rubber, nitrile, PVC or polyurethane are gaining wider acceptance for a variety of tasks in the construction industry because they are easier to work in and will therefore be worn longer.
Oily grip: Foam or sponge nitrile gloves are used in this industry because they feature a porous polymer coating that has the ability to grip an oily, slippery object, helping workers avoid dropping objects that could cause injury to the hands or other body parts. Some multi-functional gloves offer the benefits of the powerful gripping action of sponge nitrile coatings plus high-visibility liners that enhance safety in construction applications where high visibility is essential to worker safety.
Cut resistance: Gloves that offer sponge nitrile coatings with a cut-resistant liner of yarns such as Kevlar or high performance polyethylene (HPPE) offer both oily grip and cut resistance. These gloves are ideal for handling sheet metal or other materials that present multiple hazards. Protecting from lacerations while providing enhanced gripping action serves a dual purpose that mutually is beneficial to both the worker and the employer.
High performance fibers such as HPPE can be made even stronger by wrapping with stainless steel or fiberglass yarn for the highest cut resistance available. There is no cut-resistant glove that works for moving or serrated blades. Cut resistance normally is measured using a blade that is similar to a razor blade. Moving blades will cut through a cut-resistant glove and should be avoided using engineering controls. Serrated blades can get caught in the knit material used in cut-resistant gloves and cut through them.
Durability: Durability or length of wear of polymeric materials can be two to 10 times longer for gloves that are coated with natural rubber, nitrile or PVC, compared to leather and cotton gloves. Some flat-dipped gloves even have an extra layer of polymer in the areas of the glove that wear the most, for example, at the thumb crotch between the thumb and first finger. Polyurethane-coated nylon or HPPE gloves offer very durable longwearing coating that are super lightweight and comfortable.
Protection against construction chemical hazards: Some chemical hazards have been around for decades but just now are coming to the forefront of concern.
Hexavalent chromium is a major concern in the construction trade, especially for workers using Portland cement, because it has been proven to cause lung cancer in humans. It is generated from oxidation of trivalent chromium in cement kilns. Workers are exposed by breathing cement dust or handling wet cement. Wet cement contains traces of hexavalent chromium, a potent skin sensitizer that causes dermatitis debilitating chemical sensitization in workers whose skin is exposed to it.
More than 1.3 million workers in the construction trade are exposed to Portland cement and thousands more to cement dust. Skin conditions in the masonry industry are 2.5 times the national average. A study by EPA and Johns Hopkins showed a very strong dose-response relationship for chromate exposure and the development of lung cancer. Another study by Mancuso showed that 23.3 percent, or almost one-fourth, of the deaths of workers in a chromate plant since 1951 were from lung cancer.
Construction workers must be provided the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), including respirators or masks, for fumes or cement dust that may contain hexavalent chromium. Chemical-resistant gloves always should be used for handling wet cement. These gloves are fully coated with a chemical-resistant polymer coating such as nitrile, neoprene or PVC. These materials offer excellent protection from caustic and wet cement containing hexavalent chromium.
With all the new developments in glove technology designed to keep workers safer and more comfortable, lack of dexterity or cumbersomeness is not a valid excuse for not wearing gloves. The flat-dipped technology used to make many of the polymer-coated gloves provides a much cooler glove so that workers do not get so hot that they take off their gloves.
Reduction of hand injuries in the construction industry is everyone's job. With all the hand protection products available in the marketplace designed to enhance safety, comfort and worker acceptance, the only missing ingredients are training and enforcement. Employers must provide the training for employees — especially for transient jobs they are not used to doing. The workers must be trained on the proper PPE and monitored to make sure they use the proper gloves for whatever task they are performing.
Donald F. Groce is a technical product specialist and a research chemist for Best Glove. Before joining Best, he worked for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on chemical toxicology studies that included the Agent Orange Study. He is a noted speaker and expert on a variety of occupational and workplace hazards, including latex allergies and chemical exposure-related illnesses. He is a part of the local Citizen's Meth Task Force and serves on the NFPA 1999 Technical Committee and the American Industrial Hygiene Protective Clothing Committee.