Hand injuries can be especially traumatic, stripping away not only one’s ability to work, but also the ability to perform activities of daily living. Today we’ll share a surgeon’s views on the causes of hand injuries—and his tips for preventing them.
Dr. Greg Merrell is a surgeon at the Indiana Hand Center, the largest free-standing hand surgery center in the country. The facility is also the nation’s leading training center for hand surgeons.
In an interview that appeared in the twice monthly OSHA Compliance Advisor newsletter, Merrell shared his thoughts on the primary causes of hand injuries, plus valuable tips to help employers and employees avoid them and their potentially devastating impact.
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Two Main Categories
The two primary types of workplace hand injuries are traumatic events and overuse or repetitive-motion injuries. According to Merrell, amputations and other serious injuries typically occur because of a lack of experience or training. He cited a recent patient, a young man who was assigned to work on a machine that stamps out truck mud flaps. The worker had been placed by a temporary agency, and he had little training and experience with the equipment.
Following a horrible accident, Merrell was able to reattach the worker’s arm. “The company had no business putting him on that machine,” Merrell said.
Current economic conditions may worsen the risk. Employers may hire less experienced people to fill positions once held by more seasoned workers “if and when things come back around,” Merrell said. In other cases, workers who are retained may be assigned to tasks with which they are less familiar, thus increasing the chance for injury.
Merrell is skeptical about the direct link between work activities and conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, whether on the production floor or in the office. He points to a number of studies that cast doubt on the strict workplace cause of these ills. Instead, he believes the conditions usually result when other risks are present, such as severe cold, exaggerated wrist position, or excessive grip/force requirements. Merrell also notes the effect of nonwork activities such as gardening and sports, as well as the overall aging of the population. Younger tendons are better able than older tissue to sustain repetitive work, lifts, etc.
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Whatever the causes, there are a number of steps employers can take to help reduce the risk of hand injuries and to minimize the impact of those that do occur. Merrell’s recommendations include the following:
- Recognize the value of experienced workers, especially on high-risk equipment.
- Invest in workplace safety training. “It can’t pay off enough.”
- Identify opportunities to increase the comfort and ergonomics of tools. Find ways to decrease the amount of force workers must apply to create and assemble parts. Merrell says a good industrial engineer will pay for his or her presence in your workforce many times over in terms of safety and reduced absenteeism.
- Cross-train employees and rotate them during the day, or between shifts, so that they are using different muscle/tendon groups. This will help increase job satisfaction and can decrease the risk of injuries, especially among older workers.
- Consider an on-site occupational health nurse. Merrell says the presence of a caring, competent nurse communicates to workers that their employer cares about their comfort and safety.
- Establish a plan, along with your workers’ compensation carrier, for how you will manage hand injuries. Some businesses acknowledge that, even though the ailments may have been caused by nonwork factors, they can be claimed through workers’ compensation. This shows that an employer values the employees and their overall well-being.
Tomorrow we’ll look at more tried-and-true steps you can take to minimize hand injuries in your workplace.