Updated: Feb 26
Most businesses and school administrators are aware of the importance of keeping their employees and students safe at work and school. However, are there any specific guidelines to ensure left handers have the tools they need to remain safe and excel in their careers and education?
WorkSafeBC is an agency in British Columbia, Canada established by government legislation designed to “oversee a no-fault insurance system for the workplace.” One of its mandates is to, “Promote the prevention of workplace injury.” When we asked their media relations team if there are regulations designed to help accommodate needs of left handers in the workplace, they replied, “While there are no specifics to left-handedness in terms of regulation, employers are required to do a risk assessment to ensure their workers are properly set up and safely able to use any equipment, machinery, and tools necessary for the task at hand.” They directed us to their general requirements and regulations under the Workers Compensation Act and Occupational Health and Safety Regulation, where you can find excellent information on how to keep workers safe. This includes:
For woodworking tools and equipment: “A template, jig, or pushstick must be used if there is a risk of injury to a worker's hands when feeding woodworking machinery.”
“A hand-held circular saw must have a guard which automatically adjusts to the thickness of the material being cut, and which, when the saw is withdrawn from the material, completely covers the cutting area of the blade.”
“A chain saw must have a chain brake that activates automatically upon kickback regardless of the position of the power head or operator's hands.”
Dr. Marietta Papadatou-Pastou from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens says there are some left-handed workers who face real dangers when operating certain tools, “Left handers are at 10 times higher risk than right handers to sustain a major injury when operating a power saw. Major injuries are ones that involve amputation of part of a finger or a serious hand injury. To balance things out, we know a study in the metal manufacturing industry which found that overall, there was no clear bias with the workstations favoring the left or the right hand. So, maybe it's not fair to say that all equipment is designed for right handers.”
Dr. Papadatou-Pastou points out,
“People who work in offices might not be at risk of sustaining major injury but are also not having their needs met. I would think people are not as productive as they can be, they’re not feeling as valued as they should, and they're not having their differences recognized and respected. So, it can be a matter of sustaining major injury as in the case of operating power saws, but it can also be a case of convenience, comfort, and respect when it comes to office workers.”
While left handers need to also voice their concerns when they see a safety issue, many lefties we spoke to simply say they learn to adapt to a right-handed environment. For managers, it starts with empathy; an understanding of the challenges left handers face when using tools designed for the opposite hand.
Bill Pacheco is a senior user experience designer and product development leader. He is an expert at gaining a deep understanding of how people use different products and tools. Mr. Pacheco says, “One way of getting stakeholders to care is to have them be empathetic to the situation. Let's say a key stakeholder was right-handed, I would have them operate the product that they make with their right hand tide to their side and they would just have to do it left-handed. There's no way better way, I think, of having somebody feel empathetic towards somebody else then putting them in that situation. How did that feel? Your attitude changes by going through that experience and you begin to say this isn't fair, this isn't right, we can do better.”
Understanding Left-Handed Challenges In School
Dr. Papadatou-Pastou says, left handedness can be a disadvantage when it comes to training for certain professions, “For example surgeons. But this is not due to a lesser ability on the part of left handers, it's due to barriers in training. A study showed only one in ten surgical residency programs mentor for laterality dominance and only 13% of the programs provided left-handed instruments during surgical residency. Actually, some surgeons were encouraged to change their laterality.” Dr. Papadatou-Pastou suggests these challenges can be addressed by simply:
identifying the laterality of medical students,
matching students with mentors of the same laterality who understand the challenges faced by lefties in this industry,
providing students with instruments designed for left handers,
provide published guidelines on how to best use industry tools.
Left handers go through challenging situations from a young age in school. Tracy Van Der Merwe hosts workshops for teachers and parents through her Left-Hand Learning company in South Africa. She says, “It’s important for people to understand lefties are not the issue, it’s just that they need different tools because of their left handedness.”
Mrs. Van Der Merwe also teaches empathy in her workshops by giving right handers left-handed scissors, “and I tell them to use the left-handed scissors in their dominant hand. So, it's the wrong scissors for them, and the frustration they feel when they're trying to cut brings home the message of a left-handed child in the class having the wrong equipment. We as adults can deal with the frustration, but for a child it's really challenging, and they reflect on themselves and they ask, ‘but what am I doing wrong?’ Lefties need to understand this is not something they are doing wrong, it's just that they do some things differently. That's an important thing for me to try and bring home to them, and for the parents and teachers to help them with that.”
Stocking Up On Everyday Left-Handed Supplies
Southpaws know most workplaces, classrooms, and supplies within these settings are mostly designed for the right-handers of the world. But there are certain items which can be found in either lefty-specific or ambidextrous versions that will make a huge difference for left-handers in any environment. Even for everyday use, lefties can find common products such as scissors, can openers and even tape measures. Coffee mugs can also make a difference, with graphics designed to face in or out based on the hand that’s holding the mug. Spiral notebooks are a challenge for left-handed writers and offering employees quick-drying pens that don’t smear can make a big difference. And let’s not forget our computers! A keyboard with the keyboard and mouse on the left side is a simple way to show left-handed employees how valuable they really are. See what else makes a difference for southpaws in the following graphic from Quill.