Proper training, PPE and general awareness serve as the best defenses against hand injuries.

Tools are vital to performing work in the precast concrete industry. Whether building forms, bending rebar or patching products, they streamline tasks, making work more efficient. But the most important tool used each day can be overlooked, despite being essential to every operation in a precast plant.

From design to pouring, setting, striping and beyond, hands are at the center of all operations. Yet, despite the importance of our hands both inside the plant and outside of work, injuries are incredibly common in the construction industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 1 million workers are sent to the emergency room each year due to serious hand injuries.1 These include everything from lacerations to cuts, burns and broken bones.

Steps can be taken to ensure hands are protected, including arming workers with the proper PPE, providing adequate resources and education and championing focus and awareness in the workplace.

What hazards are present at a precast plant?

Because of the nature of the work performed, numerous hazards exist at precast plants. Specific hazards vary depending on the products you manufacture and your plant’s operation. As such, Jason Brewster, safety and compliance manager at Atlantic TNG of Sarasota, Fla., suggests performing a job hazard analysis (JHA) as the first step in protecting workers from hand injuries.

“With any safety program, your situation is site-specific,” he said. “Conducting the job hazard analysis and focusing on the hazards an employee is exposed to in whatever work they are performing gives you a better idea of what you can do to prevent injuries.”

Dan Drenth, precast concrete specialist for Alpharetta, Ga.-based Chryso/GCP, agreed with Brewster, noting the following general areas for concern across most precast plants:

  • Pinch/crush hazards – Any space where an employee’s hands can be caught, such as between a piece of heavy equipment and a precast product, creates a pinch/crush hazard. Accidents in this category can lead to fractures and broken bones.
  • Cut hazards – Tasks that involve sharp edges or corners, such as bending and cutting rebar, create cut hazards. Workers may suffer abrasions, cuts or lacerations during an accident.
  • Burn hazards – If hot surfaces or materials are involved in the work being performed, burn hazards are generated. Burn hazards can include processes such as welding but can also include coming into contact with materials such as chemical admixtures and even concrete, which can cause dermatitis and other skin irritations if handled without proper PPE.
  • Electrocution hazards – Though likely less common than those listed above, electrocution hazards are present in precast plants when live electrical work is part of a task, such as when workers perform maintenance on machinery and equipment.

Going on defense

Using the hazards identified from your JHA, many steps can be taken to mitigate hand-related injuries at a plant. First, as is the case with any other safety approach, apply the steps outlined in the hierarchy of controls – elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls and PPE.

As the top method in the hierarchy, the most effective defense against any injury is elimination. Where possible, find solutions in your plant that will prevent workers’ hands from being placed in dangerous situations.

“Elimination is always the best method of defense, per standard safety philosophy,” Brewster said. “One example is in your use of materials. If it’s an option at your plant, there might be cause for looking at a switch to fiber instead of rebar reinforcing – this would remove significant potential for laceration or puncture injuries.”

In many cases, elimination is not viable, and you will need to work your way down the hierarchy. Methods such as automating a task, guarding against pinch and crush points via barriers or cages, and ensuring caps are placed on exposed rebar can be effective. But while some hazards may be eliminated or engineered out of the situation, others cannot be avoided. To counteract these, gloves serve as the last line of defense for the hands.

“Gloves are a pretty simple solution, but they are also more complex than some may realize,” Drenth said, noting that the use of gloves is not a one-size-fits-all approach. “There are hundreds – if not thousands – of different gloves made of different materials and sizes. It’s important to select the correct glove for the application.”

For example, Drenth explained that an employee who is performing work associated with high heat should select a glove made of leather or suede for the best protection, as these will melt only at extremely high temperatures. Employees working with rebar should seek puncture-resistant gloves, while those who are patching concrete will need a glove that stands up to abrasion.

Drenth also suggested seeking employee input in obtaining the correct types of gloves for your operation.

“Don’t just go and buy a few thousand pairs of gloves,” he said. “Run some tests with your team and make sure that the gloves are both comfortable and appropriate for the work that takes place at your facility.”

As with any other type of PPE, check to ensure that the gloves you have on hand are in good, working condition. Remove any gloves from your inventory that are damaged or have otherwise exceeded their service life.

Beyond the glove

In addition to deploying the hierarchy of controls and arming your employees with the proper PPE, other steps are critical in safeguarding workers against hand injuries in the plant. Training is an essential part of the equation and typically begins during the onboarding process. As Brewster explained, at Atlantic TNG, hand safety is embedded into operations training and is contingent on an employee’s position with the company.

“We talk about why we use the gloves that we do along with what types of gloves are available for different jobs if you are cross-training,” he said. “And then, with any operators, we cover every specific hazard point there is and what we have in place to stop those hazards.”

By cross-training employees on the different types of gloves available and all the hazards present, Brewster and the team at Atlantic TNG enable their staff to be agile – if an employee is absent or unable to work, another team member can step into the role with a similar level of knowledge and care as the person they are replacing.

In Drenth’s experience, one of the most effective philosophies to teach during any hand safety training is awareness.

“My biggest concern is being aware of where you are placing your hands at all times,” he said. “Make sure that your employees are focusing on their work and the tasks that are being performed. Purposeful movements are essential – one wrong move without awareness can result in a significant hand injury.”

Brewster echoed Drenth’s words. He tells his team to “focus on being intentional, not fast,” both in their training and as a general best practice. He also stresses that team members should not think ahead to the next step of the task they are performing. This reduces injuries and production errors, ultimately leading to both a safer environment and a smoother operation.

Reminding your employees of the importance of hand safety throughout the year is also key. Consider partnering with a third-party vendor to conduct a safety session or developing toolbox talks around specific hand-related issues that you see in your plant.

Consider also modifying your hand safety approach as your plant evolves. For example, if you purchase a new piece of equipment, think through how this affects your operations and whether the items identified in your JHA are affected. If so, revise your methods to ensure the best possible situation for your team.

Finally, as with any other safety concern, establishing a strong safety culture is key. Ensure that employees are comfortable not only with the tasks they perform and the PPE they use, but also with reporting. All accidents, from near misses to minor and major hand injuries, should be reported. Doing so will help you dive deeper into additional hazards that may not have been previously identified.

Giving your team a hand

Hands are critical to everything we do as humans and are particularly important to smooth and efficient operations inside precast concrete plants. As such, leadership and safety teams should do everything in their power to protect workers from sustaining injuries. Through thoughtful training and onboarding, customized safety plans and supplying workers with proper PPE, the number of injuries at your plant can be mitigated.

“Really, our employees should come out of work in the same shape and condition as they were in when they arrived,” Drenth said. “It’s up to us to provide the appropriate resources and materials to ensure that happens.”