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Mining's latest safety concern: Fluid injection injuries

Hydraulic fluid can penetrate the skin at the same velocity as a bullet
By Amanda Silliker

Jacob Ferguson* worked at a small, family-owned trucking company in Grey County, Ont., and one day he was greasing a pin on a truck. He was manipulating the hose to reach the grease nipple when a tiny pinhole burst through the hose and grease was injected into the side of his finger.

“It felt like my hand blew off,” he says. “When I squeezed my finger, the grease would come right out of the hole, and it swelled to three times the normal size.”

After four hours, Ferguson was convinced to go to the hospital. The surgeon had to cut the full length of the finger, remove the grease and disinfect the wound, which was left open to heal. Ferguson was in the hospital for four days on heavy antibiotics. While he now has full use of his hand and fingers, the nerve endings in most of his fingers are completely gone.

Hydraulic fluid injection injuries, like what Ferguson sustained, are caused by a release of pressurized hydraulic fluid penetrating the skin. A pinhole-sized leak can travel at the same velocity as a bullet — 600 feet per second, says Timothy Ley, owner of FutureProof Consulting in Freelton, Ont.

“If a bullet went through your hand or arm or something, it’s a blunt force injury. It will just blast its way through flesh and tissue. Well, think of the same thing now with a stream of high pressure fluid,” says Ley. “It basically batters its way through tissue and flesh, and it can hit bones and bounce around and maybe come out the other side or lose its energy as it dissipates within the hand or the arm or the leg, but it’s basically a blunt force trauma.”

According to Ley’s research, more than nine per cent of mine safety incidents in the United States involve fluid power systems, with one per cent resulting in serious injury or death. A 2010 survey of one-half of the mines in New South Wales, Australia, identified 1,186 fluid releases from the previous three years. Of those, 152 were direct contact incidents — three times as many as electric shock incidents — and 3.3 per cent resulted in serious injury or death, says Ley.

“When I talk to experienced people, almost inevitably they all know of someone who has had an injection injury or they’ve heard of it in their company, their industry, somewhere, at their site; they’ve heard of it,” he says.

Employers in the mining industry need to be particularly aware of this risk because their workers are exposed to hydraulics in every level of mining, every day.

“There’s definitely a higher potential for this type of injury,” says Sarah Nicoll, process control technician and member of the joint health and safety committee at Walker Industries in Niagara Falls, Ont. “We have loaders, haul trucks, drills and much of the actual crushing components, they all operate using hydraulics.”

While fluid as low as 100 pounds per square inch (psi) can penetrate the skin, most hydraulic equipment in mining runs around 4,000 psi and the pressure is increasing, says Ley. While there are no longwall mining systems (a form of underground coal mining) in Canada yet, there is talk of one opening in British Columbia, and these types of systems are starting to approach 10,000 psi. 

“So very, very high pressures and when those pressures are released and hit an individual, they do huge damage physically,” says Ley. 

The most common situation in which hydraulic fluid injection injuries occur in mining is when a worker is checking for a leak. For example, a maintenance worker might see a drip in the hydraulic system but doesn’t know where it’s coming from. Human nature leads him to rub his hand along the hose to find the source, but as soon as he makes contact with the leak, the liquid is easily injected into the skin. And the worker might not even know he has been injected. 

“Unfortunately, these are often not very painful and the point of entry to the skin is usually very small, so it appears harmless, and it can be hours or maybe even days before they feel the pain and swelling,” says Nicoll.

Eventually, the area will start to swell and the pain will set in. The body is trying to purge the fluid — which is toxic — and this is what causes the swelling. When this fluid enters the body, it begins to kill the tissue and there’s a risk of blood poisoning and bacterial infection.

If a worker sustains a hydraulic fluid injection injury, he needs to seek medical attention right away. What looks like a simple puncture wound can in fact be life threatening if not addressed immediately. Any longer than 10 hours, the risk of amputation is extremely high. If the worker waits too long, gangrene (localized decomposition of body tissue) can set in.

“The only way to control that poison from creeping through the rest of the body is to be able to amputate that part of the body off, which is the extreme, but the alternative usually is death,” says Jim Martinson, health and safety business partner, corporate and aggregates, Walker Industries. “This type of injury, although it is not as well known as crushing or other types, still has the potential to be lethal.”

While the hands are the most common site for injection injuries, the head, neck and face can also be affected as any exposed skin is at a high risk.

When the worker goes to the hospital, make sure the safety data sheet for the injected fluid goes with him so the doctor knows what she is dealing with. Mining workers work with pressurized sand, plastics, grease, wax, cement, water, air, paint thinner and fuel — all of which can be injected. It’s also useful to tell the hospital staff the amount of fluid injected, the exact location on the body that’s affected and the time the injury occurred.

“A lot of doctors in the medical profession are not well versed in this and with the times they encounter this being so very few, they’re not really aware of what the procedure is when something like this happens,” says Martinson.

Unfortunately, the surgery for a hydraulic fluid injection injury is often quite invasive.

“The injury point has to be opened up to remove the fluid from the location and sometimes, for example, an injection injury in the tip of your finger, they may have to open your arm up completely to remove fluid. That will depend on the amount of fluid injected,” says Colin Bonner, CEO of the International Hydraulic Safety Authority in Deseronto, Ont.

Recovery for the worker after an injection injury can be quite lengthy, especially if the limb was amputated. The worker may not have full or any function of his fingers or hands and may be off work for a long time or never go back at all, says Bonner.

As a result, an injury like this can be costly to the company. For example, there are substantial costs associated with first aid, calling an ambulance, hospital fees, long-term recovery, benefits paid out to the injured worker and replacement costs for that position, he says. Indirect costs include decreased employee morale and productivity. The employer may also face increased workers’ compensation board premiums, fines from the ministry of labour and litigation.

“It can affect their bottom line at the end of the year,” says Bonner. “The numbers are astronomical.”

An injury like this can also damage the company’s reputation because it would be seen as lacking safety protocols and procedures.

“Primarily in your own sector you hate to see any injury occur, whether it’s your competition or not, because it brings bad press,” says Bonner. “And obviously with social media, everybody knows.”

To prevent hydraulic fluid injection injuries in the first place, mining employers should conduct regular inspections of hydraulic systems to check for wear and tear in the hoses and loose fittings. A proper maintenance schedule to replace hoses, fittings and other components needs to be in place.

“Don’t just change every two years because that’s what somebody told you to do; do it based on condition, do it in a sufficient frequency so you don’t have over wear where leaks can now start to happen and surprise you,” says Ley. 

All of Walker Industries’ mechanics are certified heavy equipment mechanics and have been thoroughly trained by third-party specialty trainers to recognize leaks during regular inspection and maintenance, says Nicoll.

If a hose needs to be replaced, lockout procedures need to be followed to isolate the energy. The lines that are under hydraulic pressure have relief valves (also known as bleeder lines) so workers can “bleed” the pressure out of the line to bring it down to an acceptable working level, says Martinson.

If workers believe there is a leak, they need to know to never check for it with their hands.

“Most leaks can be found without the need to pressurize the system, but sometimes it does need to be pressurized, so at that point, we take procedures like standing away from the line… and definitely, definitely we do not put our hands and fingers on that line to try and find a leak,” says Nicoll.

Workers need to be trained on how to properly check for leaks and understand the hazard of hydraulic fluid injection. This means the employer needs to develop procedures to address the hazard and make sure workers are well versed in these procedures, says Bonner.

“Under the general duty clause, it’s the requirement of the employer to educate and train workers or personnel on the hazards within their work environment, and fluid injection awareness is no different,” he says. “They need to be aware of how horrific the injury can be.”

A lot of the safety training at Walker Industries comes from the surface mining program through Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities as well as the company’s annual in-house startup training, both of which outline proper procedures when working with hydraulics. The president of Walker Industries attends the startup meetings every year and stresses the importance of working safely, says Nicoll.

Walker Industries has also a tool box talk specifically on hydraulic fluid injection injuries.

There is very little personal protective equipment  (PPE) available to reduce the risk of injection injury, says Bonner. There are some high-pressure gloves available as well as aprons designed to prevent exposure to high-pressure fluid.

At Walker Industries, workers wear protective gloves, long sleeve overalls and eye protection when checking for leaks and working on hydraulic systems.

After Ferguson’s traumatic injection injury when he was manipulating the hose on a truck, he accepted a new job offer at Walker Industries. Being as he has first-hand knowledge of the dangers of working with hydraulics and the potential for injection injuries, he says he feels fortunate to be able to work for a company with such a strong safety record — one that has never had a fluid injection injury.

This boils down to the true culture of safety at the company, where safe work practices start with the president and trickle down through middle management and all employees, says Martinson.

“We work in an industry where they don’t take little bits, they take big bites here, so we have to be very cognizant of (the fact that) the equipment, the machinery we use can do a lot of damage — and we respect the fact it does,” he says. “The executives have given the power to employees to shut operations down, without any repercussions, if they feel there is something unsafe. That’s pretty much unheard of.”

*Name has been changed

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2016 issue of COS.

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