Just about anyone working on a job site, as well as most do-it-yourselfers, has experienced an injury caused by a hand tool. Many seem to expect a minor injury, such as a scrape or a bang on a knuckle. However, hand tools can cause very serious, career-ending accidents, such as the loss of an eye, a finger or a hand.

A “hand tool” in this context is a portable piece of equipment that is used to assist our hands and make a task easier and quicker to complete, not a hand-operated power tool. These tools are designed for tasks that would be very difficult, if not impossible, to complete with just the hands. Hand tools are categorized based on how they assist with the completion of a task:

• Impact tools (chisels, punches and hammers)

• Wrenches

• Blade tools (knives, axes and wedges)

• Pliers and nippers

• Vises used to hold materials steady

• Saws

• Crowbars

• Jacks

Every trade won’t need tools in all these categories, but on a multiple-employer site with many different trades, employees have a very good chance of coming across most of them. Most injuries caused by these relatively simple tools arise from using a tool for a purpose for which it wasn’t specifically designed. For instance, pliers are often considered to be a general-purpose tool and are meant for gripping and cutting operations only. However, they are often used as a substitute for wrenches. This is discouraged because the pliers’ jaws are flexible, frequently slip and don’t hold the work as securely as a wrench.

Each human hand is a complex engineering masterpiece. Each hand is made up of 27 bones, 17 muscles and associated tendons, ligaments, blood vessels and nerves. These pieces come together to allow you to perform all the varied tasks that make you a skilled and valued employee. Not only does having use of your hands allow you to accomplish tasks at work, it also allows you to live a full life. A hand injury may not be life threatening but will probably be life changing, since these injuries can be very difficult to repair. Hand tool injuries generally are to one or both hands.

Injuries related to hand tools make up between 7 and 8 percent of all compensable injuries each year. Many involve severe, permanent disabilities. Some of the more common hand tool-related injuries and possible causes are as follows:

• Puncture wounds very commonly result from the use of a screwdriver with a loose handle. This can allow the hand to slip, causing the blade to cut or puncture the hand and fingers.

• Loss of an eye and/or vision occurs when using impact tools (hammers, chisels, etc.) without proper eye protection. A strike from one of these tools can cause a chip or fragment to fly into the eye.

• Smashing and breaking a bone in the hand is often caused by using the wrong hammer for a task or using something other than an impact tool for that job.

• Using hand tools incorrectly or using the wrong tool for the job often can cause bruising.

• Using a dull knife or chisel or even using a screwdriver improperly can often result in a crippling injury, such as a severed finger, tendon and/or artery. Surgeons are capable of reattaching these appendages, but the injuries can still be career-ending.

Hand tools can contribute to ergonomic injuries to muscles, tendons, joints and nerves. These injuries include strains and sprains, tendon inflammation (or tendonitis), and carpal tunnel syndrome. These injuries can occur suddenly or develop over time and may require surgery to repair.

As with any safety issue on a job site, prevention is the best way to keep employees safe. Using a tool only for its designed task is an easy way to prevent injuries. It also is important to visually inspect a hand tool before each use for any signs of wear or defect. Any tool that is found to be defective should be repaired or tagged as such, removed from service and replaced. At the end of each shift, hand tools should be cleaned, sharpened if necessary, and stored in a toolbox or on a rack to help keep them in good working order.

Because of your career, your hands are your bread and butter, a necessity to your employment. Any one of these injuries can cause a permanent disability that could quite possibly end your career on a job site. The question then becomes how you will continue to feed and care for your family. These injuries don’t have to happen; you can avoid them by paying attention to the task at hand and using the correct tool for that task.

KELLY is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 and dkelly@intecweb.com. Joe O’Connor edited this article.