In many jobs, particularly those that involve operating machinery or handling dangerous substances, our hands are extremely vulnerable to injury. Hand protection, usually in the form of safety gloves, is a necessary tool for many workers across industries.
“Injuries to the hands are the number one cause of work-related incidents,” says Terry Smith, national sales and marketing manager with Showa Group in Coaticook, Quebec. “The most hours that people lose in a year are because of hand injuries.”
The scope of industries that require hand protection for employees includes construction, the automotive sector, bottling, sheet-metal manufacturing, forestry, aerospace and steel mills. In many sectors, hands need protection from sharp objects like blades and glass, machinery, burns and chemical spills. Manufacturers also make gloves that can resist vibration, punctures, liquids and hard impacts. High-visibility work gloves for darker environments or work at night are also available.
An employee working with sharp sheet metal, for example, needs high cut protection and yet must also retain the ability to grip the sheet metal that is being put on the assembly line. Someone in the oil and gas industry needs back-of-the-hand impact protection for work with pumps and valves, while other industries require safety gloves that are flame-resistant.
Material from which gloves are made depends on the hazards they are designed to protect against. Cut-resistant gloves, for example, often contain Kevlar, stainless steel or DSM Dyneema. Chemical-resistant gloves are usually made of latex, natural or synthetic rubber or plastics, while gloves that protect hands from cold weather are made of wool or waterproof materials. Anti-vibration gloves, which shield workers’ hands from carpal tunnel syndrome by absorbing the shock effects of jackhammers, chainsaws or other vibrating equipment, can come in leather, nitrile or Kevlar.
Flex and Protect
While reliable protection is the main function of safety gloves, comfort and flexibility are also important, since workers need to be able to use their hands to do their jobs effectively. In the past, safety gloves tended to be thicker and bulkier and to lack dexterity. Although this helped with protection, it also made the gloves uncomfortable to wear — spurring employees to take the gloves off and adding to the risk of laceration.
Today, many safety-glove manufacturers use a knitting process in which varying stitch designs around the stress areas help lessen hand fatigue and enhance flexibility, making the gloves practical and safe. Workers in the manufacturing sector who operate a lot of machinery, for example, might prefer gloves that are thinner and do not affect manual dexterity.
The proper type and strength of protection in gloves vary from job to job, but comfort is a universal need. And one-size-fits-all does not count when it comes to safety gloves. Even style and appearance can indirectly influence the effectiveness of a glove; workers are more likely to wear safety gloves that they have taken a liking to, and less likely to lose them.
Another vital characteristic to consider is the fit. An ill-fitting glove not only leads to discomfort, but can also result in hand fatigue, which only adds to potential workplace hazards. Superior Glove, a safety-glove-manufacturing company based in Acton, Ontario, offers on its website a simple, downloadable hand-measuring chart that allows a worker to determine the proper size of glove required via hand width. There is also a chart for finding the right sizes of safety sleeves for workers who often find themselves dipping their arms into hazardous substances.
But the most important factor for choosing a brand or type of safety gloves remains their ability to protect from the job’s specific hazards. A buyer should always put the onus on the manufacturer to ensure that the product meets the relevant standards.
Level without a Cut
According to information from Superior Glove, cut-resistance gloves are designed to protect against three kinds of injuries: abrasive cuts, such as rubbing against material parts with sharp or jagged edges; slicing cuts caused by the slipping motion of a sharp edge like that of a knife; and impact cuts from getting hit by falling metal or glass.
Frank MacDonald, the firm’s vice-president of sales, explains that cut-resistant gloves can be classified into five levels of strength in cut protection, with five being the highest. “Steel mills, for instance, they need a minimum-2,500-gram cut protection, which would be Cut Number Four,” MacDonald says. Clearly, sheet-metal plants also need high cut protection, up to level four or five. “A lot of times, what they will do is, they will try out the glove, make sure that it operates properly and they get the protection that they need.”
Julie McFater, Superior Glove’s marketing and communications manager, adds that the level of cut resistance is determined by how the yarns are woven together in production. “We do a lot of research into that,” McFater reports, adding that the company tries to combine different yarns and fibres and make combinations that stay lightweight and comfortable, but still protect the worker. Tactile sensitivity is another trait that employers should consider when selecting cut-resistant gloves, as well as price per hour of protection, she adds.
Superior Glove particularly specializes in cut-resistance gloves made of Kevlar. “Most people are familiar with Kevlar,” MacDonald says. “When you put Kevlar out there, they think bullet-proof vests and just body armour in general, helmets. The material is just inherently cut-resistant.”
When choosing a brand of heat-resistant gloves, an employer should first establish the type of heat hazards from which employees need protection. Considerations include whether the heat is moist or dry, whether it is thermal or atmospheric exposure is involved, if an open flame or a spark is present and the air temperature in these working conditions. Certain gloves use an outer layer of silicone-coated Kevlar to allow workers to touch hot surfaces without burning or melting the gloves, while other kinds of multi-layer protection can guard against extreme heat hazards in the steel industry and other types of jobs.
Similarly, chemical-resistant gloves come in different types to protect the hands from various chemicals. It is best to clarify with the manufacturer or seller what the job’s chemical hazards are and determine whether employees need latex material for food handling, neoprene or nitrile for certain oils and fuels, butyl for certain gases or water vapours, or a silicon coating for handling liquid nitrogen, according to information from Superior Glove’s website.
Unlike other types of personal protective equipment, which can last a long time if workers maintain it properly, safety gloves tend to be replaced frequently. “If people take care of the gloves, they can last a long time, but there are many factors,” Smith says. “Some people have hard hands, some people are going to be rough on them, some people may be doing 1,000 pieces a day of whatever they are working on.”
Because of their apparent disposability, employers often consider price a primary factor when deciding what kind of gloves to supply. But Smith recommends keeping quality as the top priority. Showa tests all of its gloves to make sure that they can last for as long as eight hours without any chemicals seeping through. “When we sell a glove and they look at our information and use our sales team, they know that they are protected with the gloves that we are offering them. And if we are unable to provide a glove to protect them, we will tell them,” he explains.
Nathan Peterson, marketing and sales representative with Glove Guard in Highlands, Texas, has observed a current trend in which employers are choosing higher-quality gloves over cheaper ones. “They are buying their workers the really expensive brand, mainly because they want to increase safety,” he says. As a result, employers have to make sure that workers do not lose the gloves, “because the more that they are having to replace them, the more their cost goes up.” That is why Glove Guard has pioneered clips that keep safety gloves hooked onto workers’ belts, overalls or other items of clothing.
Since the costs of glove replacement can pile up quickly, it helps if workers know how to take care of their safety gloves. Superior Glove offers downloadable laundering guides on its website. The proper way to launder gloves depends on the kind of material of which they are made, as many of the fabrics have strict limits. “If you put bleach in with a Kevlar glove, it will come out looking like orange juice,” MacDonald says. “It just breaks it down. Bleach is Kevlar’s enemy, whereas with an HPPE glove, basically, that is a high-performance polyethylene. We can bleach that to use it with solvents, and it will withstand that breakdown.”
Dyneema gloves can also handle bleach, but cannot withstand temperatures higher than 144 degrees Celsius. As such, users need to wash them in cold water and dry them in low or no heat. Gloves made of cythioate, an organothiophosphate chemical, cannot be cleaned with soap, which increases their flammability, but oxygen-based bleach in a temperature lower than 24 degrees Celsius is fine. Leather requires dry-cleaning while nylon needs warm water for washing and low-to-no heat for drying, and wool must be washed gently in cold water with a mild detergent, according to Superior Glove’s instructions.
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton, Ontario recommends following the supplier’s instructions on keeping safety gloves clean and maintaining them. Additionally, one should always avoid wearing gloves with metal parts near electrical equipment and inspect them for tears and other defects prior to each use.
Getting a Grip
Technology is evolving, and safety gloves have benefited from it. Not only have they become more comfortable and flexible over the years, but they can also grip objects and surfaces better now. Superior Glove is currently working on creating newer dip products for gloves to enhance their protective ability, MacDonald says. The firm also hopes to develop its line of puncture-resistant gloves further, primarily for the forestry sector. Kevlar, leather, nitrile and Dyneema are common materials it uses for puncture resistance.
Showa Group has also been active in pioneering new technological developments. Smith reports that in October 2012, the company came out with the world’s first nitrile biodegradable disposable glove. Showa Group currently makes four types of biodegradable safety gloves, including two types of chemical-resistant ones that resemble dishwashing gloves. These products, while being disposable, cause less damage to the environment when they are thrown away.
Despite this breakthrough, Showa emphasizes selling the value of the gloves over their disposability. “Our glove may be a little more expensive,” Smith concedes, “but you are going to get a lot more life out of it. So in the long run, you are going to save.”
Jeff Cottrill is the editor of Canadian Occupational Health and Safety News.