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Let’s Touch On Hand Safety
DISCLAIMER: HVAC School is NOT an official OSHA safety training resource! Although we provide safety tips in good faith, our website is not a substitute for safety training from an authorized OSHA training source.
Let’s be honest: most of us probably got into the HVAC trade because we enjoy working with our hands. Unfortunately, our hands are exceptionally prone to injury, as they are ground zero for contact with hazardous substances and materials.
On top of getting cuts and burns, our hands’ nerves also take a beating in our work. We definitely pay a hefty price for the opportunity to work with our hands, a price that comes in the form of injuries and discomfort. However, we don’t have to accept the hazards and pain; we owe it to ourselves to protect our hands and take measures to heal them.
This article will cover various hazards that your hands will encounter on the job, personal protective equipment (PPE) to help protect yourself, and ways to limit or heal skin and nerve irritation or discomfort.
Hand injuries: cuts
Considering that we work with sheet metal and sharp tools, we can expect our hands to be vulnerable to cuts. Cuts and scrapes are the most common injuries sustained by skilled laborers on the job. However, just because cuts and scrapes are common, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be severe. Cuts may result in discomfort at the absolute minimum, but infection-prone lacerations are a possibility, and losing fingers is a worst-case scenario.
We’ve all carelessly grazed our hands against a sheet of copy paper and gotten a papercut. It probably didn’t bleed a lot (if at all), but it was definitely an irritating experience. Now, imagine sliding an ungloved hand across a razor-sharp edge of sheet metal. (Maybe you’ve already done it. If so, we’re sorry to reawaken those memories.) You’d likely get a full-on laceration. If you thought papercuts were nasty, you’d be in for a whole new world of pain.
We must also exercise caution when wielding sharp tools. Whether these are bladed hand tools or power tools, we can’t afford to have a cavalier attitude towards handling and using these dangerous instruments. The last thing you want is to be operating a saw that takes off your finger along with the sheet metal you’re cutting.
Of course, that is an extreme example. You’ll probably be more likely to accidentally cut yourself on a utility knife or poke yourself with a screwdriver, but those can both inflict wounds that are painful and leave you vulnerable to infection if untreated. Protective gloves offer a barrier between sharp objects and your hands.
Hand injuries: burns
We don’t just use sharp tools in HVAC work. We use torches and strikers that create or sustain a flame. Some of the materials we work with also tend to conduct heat very well, and we can burn ourselves if we touch those materials that have recently been warmed.
Brazing is a hazardous activity for both of those reasons. The obvious threat to our hands is the torch that we wield for brazing. However, a somewhat less apparent threat lies in the metal we’re brazing.
We typically braze metals that have copper in some amount, or we may braze pure copper. Copper is one of the most conductive metals because it has such a low specific heat; its temperature can rise rapidly with little resistance, unlike substances like water. If you braze copper with a torch and then get careless and accidentally touch your wrist to the copper line, then you’ll probably experience a nasty burn. That’s why we recommend wearing gloves while brazing.
Electrical repair and maintenance is also a risky activity for burns. In addition to burns from arc flashes, electrical equipment carries the unique risk of electrocution. Gloves are the first line of defense from all electrical hazards that pose a threat to your hands.
There is also such a thing as “refrigerant burn” which is really the OPPOSITE of a burn. Although most contact with refrigerant will only result in mild frostbite it can get pretty severe and become an infection risk. If you do start to have refrigerant loss, DO NOT stick your hand in there unprotected and risk frostbite.
What is the recommended PPE, and when do we wear it?
Gloves are the recommended personal protective equipment to reduce the risks of cuts and burns. Some activities that warrant the use of gloves include:
• Working on electrical equipment
• Brazing, welding, and soldering
• Using power tools or sharp hand tools
• Recovering or handling refrigerant
• Cutting, shaping, or assembling sheet metal for ducts
• Working on systems with or near hot water or steam
These are clearly not the only tasks where your hands will be at risk. Again, it’s much better to slip on a hot, sweaty pair of gloves needlessly than it is to get cut or burned when you could have protected yourself but chose not to.
Which type of gloves should we use?
The type of gloves you’ll use will depend on the task at hand. For example, the purpose of gloves in electrical work is to insulate your fingers from the electrical elements. As such, rubber or other insulating material gloves will be best for electrical applications.
When it comes to sharp objects, sturdy leather gloves are a better option. Some gloves contain a mixture of fabric and real or synthetic leather; these are good options that may be quite comfortable.
Hand problems that can’t be mitigated with PPE
Remember when we said that your skin and nerves could also get beat up pretty badly in our industry? Well, we weren’t joking. HVAC technicians perform lots of repetitive tasks with their hands. They put their wrists under a lot of stress, so they are a lot more prone to developing carpal tunnel syndrome than the average worker.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is (CTS) caused by a pinched nerve in your wrist. According to Mayo Clinic, it manifests as numbness, tingling, or weakness in the hand. Being skilled laborers is a risk factor for CTS, but the probability of being affected by CTS is even higher if you are obese, female, or already suffering from arthritis or a range of endocrine disorders.
The best things you can do to prevent CTS are keeping your wrists straight, keeping your hands warm whenever possible, and trying to keep a straight posture. Bending your wrists oddly, working while you’re cold and stiff, or stressing the nerves from the source (your spinal cord) places unneeded stress on the median nerve that runs through your carpal tunnel in your wrist. Some people even choose to wear a wrist brace overnight to keep their wrists straight.
Many of the preventative measures for CTS also work to protect you against joint pain in general. Stay warm, stretch, take breaks when needed, and try to keep your joints straight.
Your skin can also get dry and start to crack as you perform repetitive tasks. You can help the skin on your hands by using a good moisturizing lotion. The best kinds of moisturizers also provide a layer of protection and prevent your hands from losing too much moisture.
Many of us love working with our hands and wouldn’t trade our careers for anything. However, our hands require lots of careful, deliberate use and upkeep to stay healthy and strong. So, slip on a pair of gloves and keep your wrists straight if you want to keep enjoying the tactile work of our industry for years to come.