Hand and finger injury risks in the oil and gas industry
01 July 2016
Jobs in the oil and gas industry are some of the most hazardous in the world. In addition to fire and explosion risks, occupational safety risks include bodily injury, with hands and fingers amongst the most vulnerable bodily parts. This article, by oil and gas sector QHSE consultant Shahram Vatanparast, reviews the mitigation measures and prevention plans that can be used by oil and gas companies to safeguard their employees.
Hand and finger injuries are a regular feature in oil and gas companies’ Recordable Incident databases and historically make up nearly 50% of incidents across the sector, rising to 80% in some cases.
According to International Association of Drilling Contractors’ 2014 statistics, hand and finger injuries comprised about 43% of all Recordable Incidents on drilling rigs, having risen from 41% in 2013 and 40% in 2012. As a result of such statistics, companies are concentrating more and more on hand and finger injury prevention strategies.
Threats to the hands include being caught between objects and struck by objects, being exposed to chemicals, vibration, heat, cuts, bruises, breaks, burns, punctures, amputations, cold, and infectious or biological agents. Hands and fingers have more nerve endings and pain receptors per square centimetre than any other part of the human body. This helps us to quickly remove them from danger if we perceive a threat, but also makes injuries more painful than similar injuries to other parts of the body.
Carrying out a proper Risk Assessment and communicating the results to employees is an important first step in minimising hand and finger injuries. Identification of hazards such as pinch points, impact, puncture and chemical exposure risks will lead to suitable control measures.
The priority should be given to minimising employees’ exposure to unnecessary risks, with elimination of the requirement for hands-on activities if reasonably practicable one initial goal, and the implementation of engineering controls another. Use of protective gloves should be considered the last mitigation option in any hierarchy of measures. Most of the time, protective gloves will only lessen the severity of an injury rather than remove the risk completely.
Initiation of hand and finger injury prevention campaigns
Due to large number of hand and finger injuries each year, most oil and gas companies put hand and finger injury prevention campaigns in their annual HSE plans and define it as one their KPIs. Companies allocate required resources including budget, people and time for implementation of such campaigns. Measures might include the establishment of a hand and finger injury working group, conducting awareness sessions, organising workshops, distribution of awareness posters and introducing more appropriate protective gloves for a given task.
Training in hand and finger injury prevention
Increasing workers awareness to hand and finger injuries and concentrating on risk behaviours is critical and is widely used by companies. Simulated exercises such as taping up a trainee’s dominant hand and asking him or her to perform simple jobs, for example, could be an effective way to help employees understand why they should care of their hands and fingers all times. Presentations from people who have sustained hand and finger injuries, explaining how the injuries have affected their lives, is an effective way to increase workers’ awareness.
Reviewing Safety Alerts in relation to hand and finger injuries and regular Tool Box Talks could also be useful.
As a good attitude toward health and safety is critical, behavioural based training and involvement in activities such as hazard hunting exercises is fundamental to achieving the required results. Training, communication , on the job coaching and employee involvement are key components to keeping hand safety awareness in the forefront of employees’ consciousness.
Introducing advanced technology
Certain type of injuries have been reduced by using technology such as remote control pipe handling systems in oil and gas drilling rigs. Removing personnel from machinery has had a major effect in helping some companies improve their safety performance.
One example is the introduction of an "Iron Derrickman" on drilling rigs, which eliminates the need to have a human derrickman on top of the derrick and floormen on the rig floor, with a concomitant reduction in exposure to high risk activities such as pipe handling. Another example is remote top drive systems that undertake hands-off casing running operations, with obvious safety advantages.
Oil and gas companies in some regions, such as Norwegian waters, are obliged to comply with regulatory requirements stipulating the use of unmanned and remotely operated equipment.
However, the introduction of advanced equipment can create other hazards to personnel and in some cases significant incidents have occurred. These include collisions and other interactions between remotely controlled equipment and personnel, between equipment and structures, between different drill floor pieces of equipment or within the equipment itself.
Enforcement of a hands free system
The handling and positioning of heavy equipment often results in trapped or crushed hands and fingers.9 This has led the majority of oil and gas companies and contractors to develop hands free policies. These can include the use of taglines and push poles for loads and also installing CCTV on rigs and platform crane booms during lifting operations.
There is no doubt that gloves play a significant role in protecting workers' hands and fingers. According to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), around 30% of hand injuries occurred because hand protection was inadequate, damaged or misapplied. The old cotton glove days are now over , and high-performance hand protection will be reuired for all but the lightest tasks.
This would include applications such as hand tool use, pipe handling, and valve operation. Improvements in glove design have enhanced their use in the oil and gas industry, particularly on drilling rigs, where "stuck by" and "caught between objects" accounted for 56% of all Recordable Incidents in 2014.
Rugged new-technology gloves with thermoplastic rubber ribs can absorb and dissipate impacts on the back of the hand and reduce the impact of these incidents. Other features include high visibility, waterproofness, impact absorption, high durability, high dexterity and better grip.
Also crucial is the selection of the correct type of glove for the task. Workers are unlikely to want to wear the gloves for extended periods if they are uncomfortable or hinder their ability to do the job.
Safety glove surveys can help assess the working environment and define which type of glove is best for each task. There is also the option to trial different kinds of protective gloves to assess suitability and employee support.
Highlighting danger zones
Clearly identifying hazard areas such as pinch points by colour coding and displaying warning stickers is a practice widely used by companies in the sector. Frequent use of equipment and other factors such as weather conditions may cause paint and stickers to fade, so their visibility should be checked at regular intervals and renewed as appropriate.
Banning use of jewellery
Thousands of people are injured every year when a ring, bracelet or other piece of jewellery gets caught in machinery or pinch points. Banning such items while staff perform tasks is critical, as they can cause or increase the severity of hand and finger injuries.
Selection of right tools
Selection of proper hand tools is crucial. Using the wrong tools for the job or using the right tools in the wrong way can result in serious injuries. Regular hand tools inspections and the use of protective tools such as ‘finger savers’ in combination with hand tools where practicable can play a significant role in injury prevention. Banning the use of tools such as adjustable wrenches should also be a priority as they have tendency to slip, sometimes with serious results.
Installation of proper guards for machinery
Many machines have built-in safeguards to protect employees. Proper guards and regular inspections to ensure they are not compromised are fundamental to the bodily protection of employees.
Despite continued efforts by oil and gas companies, industry statistics indicate that in many oil basins, the number of hand and finger injuries is increasing year by year. Literature reviews indicate that there is no single solution to improve this situation, but a full range of mitigation measures as part of a comprehensive hand and finger injury prevention strategy can be effective.
Improved technology, such as on oil and gas drilling rigs, can have a big part to play but this can also introduce new risks which need to be mitigated. Most important of all, the involvement of employees in crucial to the success of any injury prevention program.
About the author
Shahram Vatanparast is a Chartered Safety and Health Practitioner and fellow of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management. He has an MSc in Occupational Health and Safety Management and has worked for oil companies such as TOTAL, ENI, SINOPEC and PTTEP in the Middle East and South Asia for much of the last 17 years. He is currently a freelance QHSE consultant in the upstream sector, in both onshore and offshore fields.