The fact that injuries to the hands, wrists and fingers remain a serious problem for U.S. companies is probably not news, but what may be surprising is how many of these cases are serious enough to cause lost workdays.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were nearly a quarter million injuries and illnesses to the hands, wrists and fingers involving days away from work in 2002 more than one-sixth of the total for that year. The incidence rate for this type of problem in all of private industry was 37.2 per 10,000 full-time workers, but it was far higher in manufacturing (55.1) and higher still in construction (67.7).
Despite the prevalence of hurt hands in its industry, one engineering and construction company, San Francisco-based Bechtel Group Inc., has driven its global hand, wrist and finger lost workday case rate down to an almost incredible 3.0 last year.
The Big Picture
Bechtel's enviable record with hand protection takes place in the overall context of an organization that is committed to achieving "zero accident performance," according to Kevin Berg, manager of the company's environmental, safety and health services. Although it hasn't quite achieved this lofty goal, Bechtel and its 42,000 employees scattered over 35 countries was designated as one of America's Safest Companies by Occupational Hazards last year, and the company has won a bevy of other safety awards as well.
Berg contends that while construction by its nature poses more hazards to the hands, many of the things one must do to protect the hands are simply the hallmarks of any good safety program.
"Almost everything we do is actually done by people with their hands," says Berg. Roughly 30 percent of the company's recordable injuries involve the fingers, hands and wrists. There are some instances of dermatitis and other illnesses resulting from chemical exposure, but the majority of the recordable cases involve splinters, minor abrasions and sutures.
Like most construction firms, Bechtel has a large number of new hires who join the company, or one of its contractors, for work on a specific project. But all workers on site are expected to meet Bechtel's exacting safety requirements. Educating workers and eliciting their participation is therefore a critical perhaps the most critical component of the company's safety effort.
"Before going to work, every new person we hire gets a new-hire orientation," says Berg. This includes a general overview of the safety program requirements, the type of work that will be done and attention to specific items, including hand protection. "We explain what the potential hazards are, the required personal protective equipment (PPE) and the precautionary methods to protect the hands."
The next step is to hold "tool box" meetings every week with all craft employees. "Hand protection is a very, very frequent topic at those weekly safety meetings," says Berg.
At a still more specific level, Bechtel conducts specialized safety training programs for different pieces of equipment the company may be using, or for certain work tasks. "Every time a crew is getting ready to begin a day or start a task, we do a miniature job safety analysis," explains Berg. "The crew sits down with the supervision and covers step by step the task elements that will be performed, what the potential safety and health exposures are, and what protective measures need to be taken." Hand protection is regularly addressed here as well.
Asked what is the biggest challenge in hand protection, Berg's unhesitating reply is: worker participation.
In some ways, hand protection is very simple: all the education programs in the world don't amount to much unless workers actually don the gloves.
"We can put all the processes in place, but if the worker isn't engaged, it's only on paper," asserts Stephen Walter, site safety representative for Bechtel at its Hanford, Wash. construction site. "We have to make it come alive for them."
Early last year, after performing observations, Walter discovered that during any given 15-minute period, 4 percent of the 600 workers at Hanford were not wearing hand protection.
"That means you have a considerable number of people at risk," he explains. So last June, the four weekly toolbox meetings were devoted solely to making the case for hand protection. "We challenged our supervisors to focus on this so we could see improvement."
How can you spend a month talking about gloves? Walter explains that hand injuries took up one week. Workers then learned about the various types of gloves, another week was spent explaining how to use them and in the final week all the points covered were reviewed.
The effort paid off: by August, observations revealed workers were wearing hand protection 99 percent of the time when it was required, and Walter said that number has held up since then.
In order to encourage workers to wear appropriate hand protection, Bechtel has adopted a behavior-based observation process that employs two perspectives. "We reinforce positive behavior, and question at-risk behavior."
Both approaches are essential for the success of the program, according to Phil Williams, a carpenter who works with Walter at Hanford. Many of the craft workers on site at Hanford are not used to working for Bechtel and "are more oriented to production than safety," he explains.
Questioning those who should be wearing gloves, but are not, is the most effective way of leading people to internalize safe work habits, according to Williams. Many craft workers are not used to wearing hand protection and when questioned, the answer they most often give is, "I forgot," Williams explains.
"But if you ask them, 'Why aren't you wearing gloves?' they will decide for themselves to put them on. I've seen this several times." Williams recounts that he has often seen workers who have been questioned this way later choosing on their own to wear gloves. "From the craft worker point of view, this [approach] encourages us to wear the gloves."
The Best Thing
At Bechtel's Hanford, Wash. project, eliciting worker participation in safety involves more than performing observations and asking questions, however.
Employees are involved in the selection of gloves and Bechtel has a wide variety of styles available, so that workers can choose hand protection that is appropriate to the specific task.
"We make an effort to educate workers on the types of gloves we have available," says Walter. "When you have eight types of gloves, you have something for many different types of activities. If one kind of glove doesn't work, we tell them to try another."
As a result of improvements in the design of hand protection, Walter contends that, provided many different styles are available, gloves rarely interfere with a particular job (see sidebar).
"Fifteen years ago, you didn't have a lot of choice beyond cloth or leather, but now gloves provide greater protection and are more comfortable," says Walter.
Finally, as in any excellent safety program, PPE is used only when engineering solutions are impractical.
"We try to empower workers to make engineering suggestions, instead of wearing PPE," Walter explains. For example, workers had been required to wear gloves while doing computer wiring, but after some of them suggested a way to do the work without using box cutter knives, the company decided gloves were no longer necessary.
"Instead of seeing workers as adversaries, where the company tries to force you to work safe, workers are taking responsibility to make improvements with the help of the company," Williams asserts. "From a craft point of view, the fact that the company is allowing workers to be part of the solution is the best thing we have going for us out there."
From a safety point of view, it may also be the best thing going for Bechtel.
Sidebar: Recent Trends in Glove Design
When it comes to identifying the biggest challenge for hand safety, Jim Lapping, the vice president for safety, health and environment at Power Maintenance and Constructors in O'Fallon, Ill,. agrees with his colleague at Bechtel: it is getting workers to wear the gloves.
"Being able to wear the gloves and work effectively at the same time is another way of saying the same thing," explains Lapping, whose company does repair and maintenance work at coal-fired power plants.
"The trend in glove design is to create gloves that more effectively balance comfort and dexterity with the level of protection that is needed," says Portia Yarborough, Ph.D., a research chemist with DuPont in Wilmington, Del.
"People seem to want lighter and thinner gloves with a palm dip to enhance the grip," notes Elizabeth Parrish, global marketing manager for cut protection in the Advanced Fibers and Composites group at Morristown, N.J.-based Honeywell International.
Both women say that progress in developing synthetic fibers has allowed glove manufacturers to offer workers what they want: improved dexterity that does not compromise protection. "Many gloves also have some type of form-fitting stretch component, such as spandex, that also improves dexterity," adds Yarborough.
Safety managers may want to be aware of something else going on in the hand protection industry. ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials) establishes the cut standards used to determine the level of protection that gloves provide.
Effective March 1, ASTM revised its "Standard Test Method for Measuring the Cut Resistance of Protective Apparel" (F1790-04). The changes in test protocol mean that the same glove may receive a lower cut protection performance value as compared to the previous ASTM standard.
"Safety managers should be aware that when buying new gloves, the new numbers may be lower even though the glove performance hasn't changed," explains Yarborough. "If injuries are occurring, they should take a look at these numbers, but if they aren't having injury problems, then it's probably not a concern."