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Throwing Down The Gauntlet

Published: 04th Jul 2013 in OSA Magazine

With a focus on the construction industry, Mark Da Silva details how to keep your hands out of harm’s way.

Our tools of the trade that are fit for purpose and ready for action – hands have created the world in which we live. When you take a moment to stop and think, it’s our hands that do almost everything: love, hold, touch, tickle, grab, pull, push, build and communicate. Why is it, then, that when it comes to safety, people have forgotten to give their hands the full respect they deserve?

A report released in October 2009 by Safe Work Australia reported that construction industry workers experienced 86 injuries per 1,000 workers from 2005 to 2006, nearly 25 percent higher than the rate for all other Australian workers, of 69 injuries per 1,000 workers.

Additionally, a study commissioned by the Australian Safety and Compensation Council (ASCC, 2008) acknowledged the prevalence of hand related injuries in the construction industry.The range considered minor to very severe injuries, with the most common found to involve the fingers. Open wounds were found to be the most common injury type and amputations the most severe.

The ASCC project examined work related hand and wrist injuries in Australia, focusing specifically on presentations to emergency departments and admissions to hospitals, although some information from workers’ compensation agencies was also used.

The report concluded that work related hand and wrist injuries are the most common injury type and pose a problem to Australia’s workforce. Resulting in about 8,400 admissions to hospital every year, they are a very common cause of work related injury presentation to emergency departments in Australia.

The report also highlighted the different industries in Australia that are susceptible to hand injuries. Manufacturing, wholesale, retail trade and construction industries appear to be the areas where workers most commonly sustain hand and wrist injuries in the course of work.The tasks undertaken and the equipment used have the potential to exert large forces directly or indirectly to the hand and wrist. As a result, plant and machine guarding at the design stage is of paramount importance, as a domino effect starts to occur when things go wrong – especially for the end user.

With the focus shifting to the end user, especially in the construction industry, compliance auditing to meet statutory regulations has increased; for example, one campaign called ‘Any Day Now’ advocates that there are 40,000 workplace inspection visits each year.

Within the construction industry most organisations have considered including hand injuries on their hazard registers. If it has been noted on a hazard register, it is typically also included in the construction site induction, which may examine hand safety awareness and the wearing or use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Toolbox sessions

Hand safety may be included as a monthly toolbox agenda item by adapting the topic to a schedule and allocating hand safety as a promotional tool for that month. Organisations may enlist their suppliers or providers to facilitate an awareness session on hand safety.

Most training and awareness toolbox sessions focus primarily on line of fire injuries, consisting of compression and crush injuries.These are the most common forms of injury to our hands in almost all industries, and are also the most likely hand injuries to receive medical treatment or amputation.

Lacerations are observed to be a key dimension in the list of hazards for hand injuries on construction sites.These include slicing hands on sharp edges that have not been deburred; puncture wounds from exposed nails or screw tips; being cut by sharp objects or pierced by splinters and slivers; or even cutting up an orange at lunchtime. The root cause of many of these occurrences is that the tool being used is not fit for purpose, or is being incorrectly used.

Person versus place

So why do people put their hands in harm’s way? The root cause of most occurrences will be in one of two critical areas: ‘safe person’ and ‘safe place’.The term ‘safe person’ looks at employee behaviour and why people do the things they do, based on beliefs and attitudes. ‘Safe person’, on the other hand, looks at the lower end of the hierarchy of risk control, such as administrative controls and PPE.This can include instructions for employees to follow job steps in a systematic method, such as following a standard operating procedure.This, however, may create problems if people are encouraged to follow systematic steps and instead take it upon themselves to incorporate their own method.

This is where it is left up to the worker to make integral decisions.The individual is relied on heavily to stop, think and assess the hazard.This is where we get into the territory of behavioural based safety and workplace perceptions.

Personally, I like to focus on ‘safe place’. This more tangible dimension refers to examples such as worksite arrangements, location of plant and equipment, safe design, engineering and isolation.

Risk management

The risk management tools that may be used to prevent hand injuries are similar to the strategies used to prevent all incidents or injuries. Firstly, people need to ‘walk the job’ with both the engineer who designed the scope of works and the site supervisor managing the job. This is where the group can do a risk assessment on the work scope to identify hazards at the ‘coal face’.

The next step is to apply these potential hazards to the Job Safety Analysis (JSA) or Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS) and ensure that hand safety is listed, applying the hierarchy of control to mitigate the hazards and ensure all controls are implemented before commencing work. If the work scope changes for any reason workers should stop and reassess with their workgroup. If returning from a break or new to the job, workers should ensure they review and sign the SWMS.

As mentioned previously, injuries to hands and fingers are sometimes the result of using the incorrect tools – or not using any tool to complete the task. The tool used must be fit for purpose, and this includes the use of hand and power tools. Nowadays, most power tools include guarding, but if your hand or fingers can enter a space where there isn’t guarding, this renders the protection barrier ineffective.

Before using any hand or power tool it is necessary to conduct a risk assessment:

• Identify the hazards of using a particular tool
• Check all tool guards are in place
• Ensure the correct tool is selected to complete the job

Glove selection

Glove selection is as important to hand safety as selection of the correct tool. If the incorrect gloves are worn they can pose an increased risk of injury. Using porous gloves to handle chemicals will be ineffective; sealed gloves (latex or rubber) used for physical work can cause excessive perspiration; loose gloves like rigger gloves may expose catch points around the cuff if used on particular jobs; and flex gloves are ineffective for use on hot work or on hot plant equipment.

On the hierarchy of control, PPE is the lowest point on the scale and gloves should only ever be considered as the last line of defence.

Some organisations are targeting hand safety by using behavioural based safety techniques in which tradespersons are governed by compliance, such as making it compulsory to wear gloves on the construction site.This enforcement relies heavily on supervision and the focus is on people wearing PPE – not the job they are doing.

Administrative controls

Moving up the hierarchy of risk control, organisations may look to consider administrative controls.This may include an assessment on a SWMS or JSA – examining what is done in practise (watching the job) versus on paper (what is written down).

Administrative controls may also come in the form of a site induction.These take as long as the work scope warrants, thereby losing effectiveness and gaining the nickname ‘Death by PowerPoint’. Some organisations may include promotional DVDs on hand safety, but these quickly become outdated due to ever evolving legislation.To stay up to date, most businesses are now moving towards online data systems.

Visual stimulation

Another proactive method of hazard identification is to utilise health and safety representatives to take photographs of their jobs on the worksite.These photos can then be analysed with the team in a toolbox session, initiating discussion on safe working environments.This activity is an awareness session where there is no blame, only opportunities for improvement.

Aside from photograph analysis, body mapping has become an alternative method of visual stimulation and is used as a promotional tool for injury awareness.The idea is to get everyone participating and taking ownership of their own safety.

Marking all the incidents which occur on your worksite on the body is one of the ways to investigate injuries in the workplace. If it transpires that the majority of injuries are related to the hands then the root causes must be examined.

Performance indicators

Statistical information may be used to provide an analysis of trends in hand safety. Organisational performance indicators may observe hand injuries relating to first aid being reported, medical treatment and lost time frequency rates across hours worked.

Positive performance indicators may include the quality of near miss or close call reporting on hand related injuries, and the effectiveness of the solution in the context of actions taken for a timely resolve.

Some organisations suggest that field assessments should be undertaken at a local level to analyse what’s happening in the workers’‘backyards’, and to look at what organisations are doing to prevent injury recurrence.This brings us back to the equilibrium mentioned earlier of ‘safe people’ and ‘safe place’.


As an industry, my challenge to you all is to be transparent within your network of organisations. The message is simple. To change we must adapt, to adapt we must learn, and by sharing information we all become learning organisations.

Share your information and safety knowledge by:

• Writing a safety alert on a group email or forum
• Creating an internal group email on Outlook
• ProvidinginformationonTwitter
• Starting a forum or weekly feedback session within your own network

Use information technology as a tool for safety. By providing safety reflections you are likely to find that other businesses have encountered similar problems. Sharing that information ensures, for example, wider awareness of defective machinery.

As an industry we must grow together to promote a ‘safe place’ of work, as only when the environmental design is effective can we then focus on behaviours, and the ‘safe person’. Some may argue that this is a contentious issue, but one thing can be agreed, we want our people to go home the same way they came into work today. My ethos has always been ‘Go home safe!’, but even at home we must practise these same ideals if we are to become a safer person.

Hierarchy of control

Taking an holistic view and analysing the methodology of hand safety, organisations must be sure to implement the hierarchy of control.

The first stage examines elimination. Does the person doing the job need to use their hands in this process? If the answer is no, fantastic – let’s eliminate the use of hands from the work scope.The next process in the hierarchy of risk controls is the process of substitution, examining different ways of doing the job.

The organisation may then look at engineering controls.These include separation or barriers to be implemented with guarding on appliances, plant or machinery, which prevents your hands entering the space.

Looking further at administrative controls these may also include promotional posters to instruct and educate, such as handouts and instructional job cards to promote safety.

Site personnel or line managers may observe jobs and carry out field assessments, involving people putting their hands in the line of fire. By assessing the work scope in this way, an organisation can provide constructive feedback and information to improve how people work.

If all the previously mentioned measures have been tried and found to be ineffective in controlling the risks to a reasonably practicable level, then PPE must be used. If chosen, PPE should be selected and fitted to the user.Workers must be trained in the function and limitation of each item of PPE; for example, an operator should know how ong the compressed supply in a self- contained breathing apparatus will last. PPE may be used as a temporary control measure until other alternatives are installed.

Another technique which is also available on the hierarchy of control is safe behaviour. Training sessions, procedures, and behavioural based safety techniques and awareness are now being implemented to ensure attentiveness, as most workers need to be aware of the potential risks out in the field.

Lastly, stored energy is another area in which defensive types of behaviour should be adopted; for example, when opening and dismantling mechanical devices containing springs.

Any type of stored energy which is being released may present an issue, and alternative solutions may require internal knowledge of the devices before dismantling so as to anticipate movement of coiled, energised springs while maintaining hands and fingers in a defensive position – out of the line of fire.


Using hand safety as an educational tool promotes awareness and focuses on more behavioural aspects, such as line of fire occurrences. Using the body as machinery soon takes its toll, and faced with the situation of an aging workforce, hand safety is now becoming a more prominent and integral part of construction safety.

To achieve zero harm in the workplace, organisations must move towards a greater level of transparency, sharing safety alerts and lessons learned within their own industry, and actively promoting safety in the workplace.

In the words of the great singer and songwriter, Ben Harper : “I’m gonna make it a brighter place, with my own two hands, I’m gonna make it a safer place, with my own two hands, I’m gonna help the human race.”

Published: 04th Jul 2013 in OSA Magazine


Mark Da Silva

Mark Da Silva is a registered safety practitioner for the Safety Institute of Australia (SIA) and has acquired the status of Chartered Fellow - the peak professional graded membership of the SIA. He has academic accreditations including a master’s degree in Applied Science (OHS-RMIT) and a graduate diploma of Occupational Hazard Management (VIOSH), with extensive industry knowledge including safety leadership, organisational behaviour, environmental sustainability and risk.

Through the completion of a master’s thesis on safety leadership, Da Silva has an exemplary understanding of workplace safety culture and behaviour based safety techniques. Case studies developed and proven in Da Silva’s thesis incorporate management commitment considerations, information and communication dimensions, plus workplace perception.

Da Silva has applied his theoretical framework to his professional conduct through the development and implementation of effective safety cultural surveys, which were paramount in many organisations’ cultural step changes, essentially adding value to the safety improvement and action plans for clients.

As a proactive, conscientious and adaptable health, safety and environment professional, Da Silva’s personal aphorism is “Go Home Safe!”

Skilled in developing, implementing and executing key strategic business improvement initiatives, Da Silva draws on wide ranging practical experience, including heavy industrial manufacturing, telecommunications, oil and gas and renewable energy resources, infrastructure operations and the maintenance and construction of major projects, with knowledge attained through academic accreditation.

Mark Da Silva



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