Gloves That Last

It's not easy to generalize how to care for gloves. But there are some rules of thumb you can follow to lengthen their lifespan.

YOU probably know how important it is to protect your employees' hands with the proper glove. But do you ever stop to think about how you can protect the glove itself? Doing so could save your employees from injury, and it could save you money, as well.

Often, gloves are considered a consumable item--something to be used just once and then discarded. With disposable gloves made of latex, for example, that's certainly true. But for gloves made from cotton, leather, rubber, or cut-resistant fibers, getting only one use out of such hand protection can turn out to be quite expensive when they are used on a daily basis by large numbers of employees.

Of course, it's not easy to generalize how to care for gloves. The type of glove being worn, the application for which the glove is being used, and the type of damage the glove sustains all play into the decision of whether to reuse or discard a pair of gloves. But there are some rules of thumb that employers and employees can follow to lengthen the lifespan of their gloves.

Start with Daily Inspections
One way to start would be to visually inspect gloves daily. You will want to watch out for:

  • Pilling on the inside of a glove's liner. The surface fuzz caused by repeated laundering or wear can be a sign a glove is getting old and needs to be replaced.
  • Odor. Because people's hands can sweat under the protection of a glove, it's important to keep a nose out for gloves that smell rancid. Gloves that do not allow sweat to escape can result in heat rash. Bacteria or yeast could also become trapped inside the glove, as well, leading to skin infections. To guard against this, opt for a glove that is treated with a substance such as Actifresh, which eliminates the bacteria that can grow in moist gloves. Or allow the gloves to air out after use.
  • Cracks or cuts. Sometimes cracks or cuts go unnoticed by employees wearing the gloves because the cut or crack does not pass through to the lining of the glove. Depending on the work being done, you might want to check your gloves after performing certain operations, such as handling a sheet of stainless steel. Examining the gloves after such maneuvers will help you decide whether you need a glove with a thicker palm or a stronger outside coating. It is also important to keep an eye out for torn or worn seams, which may indicate you need to opt for a different glove style or a stronger stitching material, such as Kevlar thread.
  • Excessive wear and abrasion. Wear and abrasion can occur in the fingertips, thumb areas, and palms of gloves. Examining those areas is important to preventing injury. In some instances, placing a reinforcement patch made from Kevlar or terrycloth on the abraded area can salvage a worn glove, which can lower costs.
  • Heat damage. Burns can turn a supple leather glove into a brittle one because the leather's oils are scorched out by the heat. This reduces their flexibility and protective capabilities.
  • Soil. Watch out for gloves that allow liquids or other contaminants to seep through to the inside lining and onto the hands. Some gloves, such as ones made from split leather, can absorb oils. If the oil saturates through to the inner lining of a glove, you may need to switch to a glove with a non-permeable surface.

To Clean, or Not to Clean
Though much of the damage done to gloves results in the need to buy a new pair, one way you may be able to conserve glove cost is through cleaning them. Depending on the application they are used for, gloves can be cleaned in-house or sent out to an industrial laundry.

Cotton gloves often can be cleaned on-site. But it is important to consider how the washing will affect the quality of the glove. Gloves made from 100 percent cotton, for example, may shrink or stretch after being washed. To avoid this, go with a polyester and cotton synthetic blend.

Cut-resistant gloves, typically made of Kevlar threads or other metallic substances, are often used in the meatpacking industry. Because of their cost, sometimes as high as $130 a pair, it's more sensible to clean the gloves rather than dispose of them. Rubber-coated gloves also can be cleaned free of chemicals and used more than once.

Leather gloves can be cleaned, but it's a job best left to the professionals at industrial laundries. Industrial laundries use mineral spirits or perchloroethylene to clean gloves without shrinking them. Gloves can be cleaned up to five times in an industrial laundry and still maintain their integrity, on average.

Another advantage to having gloves cleaned professionally is that the soiled material is taken care of in an environmentally compliant manner through a "closed loop" system that recycles the soiled material. Those who clean gloves on their own need to be mindful of whether or not the soils being washed from their gloves will contaminate the public water supply. Check federal and state environmental laws to be sure you are in compliance.

Slights of Hand
In addition to cleaning and reusing gloves, there are a number of other ways you can make your gloves last longer.

One motto to follow is "give a pair to get a pair." This is a good reminder that in order for your employees to get a new pair of gloves, they must turn in their old pair. This allows you to monitor the wear exhibited on the gloves so that you purchase the right gloves for their needs. It also may allow you to control excess waste. If you get a pair of gloves turned in that still have some life in them, you can avoid the cost of buying a new pair too soon by making sure the gloves are used until the end of their life cycle. Sometimes gloves that are worn out from one application can be handed down to another department for more general use. Another trick of the trade is to purchase dark-colored gloves that don't appear to dirty as fast as a white glove would. They don't get tossed as fast. However, safety should not be sacrificed for cost.

Maintaining the gloves you have also can be aided through the use of glove guards. These clips allow employees to attach their gloves to their belts. When the gloves are taken off, they hang from the belt and are not lost as easily.

Finally, don't be afraid to pay a little more. Don't forget that sometimes getting the best value for your money can mean paying more for a quality product that lasts longer. Having the right glove for the right application right off the bat is one of the best ways to begin maintaining the gloves you already have.

This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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