Dexterity in Work Gloves--a Touchy Subject

Test and compare. High-dexterity synthetic leather gloves breathe, wick sweat, and are 100 percent machine washable.

DEXTERITY has become a hot topic in hand protection.

Safety professionals realize that high-dexterity gloves result in increased safety and job performance. Corporate managers know that increased safety reduces costs while increased performance enhances productivity, both of which boost the bottom line. That being said, why do we still see so many work sites where gloves are not mandated PPE or where gloves are mandated but compliance falls short of expectations? After all, the most important tools for every employee are his brains, eyes, and hands--he can't work without all three of them functioning properly.

Hard hats and safety glasses top the list of required PPE at most work sites, but gloves fall to a distant third or fourth. And even when gloves are mandated, they're often found on the ground more than on employees' hands. Why is that?

The reason is that lack of hand dexterity has historically made gloves too cumbersome to work in. If an employee can't adequately control the tools he or she is working with--if he can't feel the details of the metal pipe, wood beam, parcel package, machine screw, airplane wing, concrete block, pine log, steel girder, or engine part that he's handling--then the gloves themselves pose an even higher risk of injury than not wearing any gloves at all.

The lack of mandated hand protection (and the lack of compliance when it is mandated) is a direct result of traditional gloves' preventing workers from effectively and safely performing their jobs. If Linda's gloves are too cumbersome to allow her to position a set of steel springs with one hand and pneumatically staple them to a mattress frame with the other hand, she's just not going to wear them. Can you blame her?

In a nutshell, the lack of dexterity in gloves has prevented them from becoming universally required and accepted hand protection. And that's a sad thing, because no matter how talented you are at the job you perform, you can't work with injured hands.

Historically, safety managers have had to provide their employees with adequate hand protection only at the expense of hand dexterity. (The chart in this article plots dexterity vs. protection for many glove styles.)

For example, increased protection from cuts and abrasions used to require thick leather gloves. While high in protection and durability, these gloves lack the dexterity required to perform most tasks safely and efficiently. Their lack of breathability and washability also makes them uncomfortable and a source of poor hygiene. One solution to this dilemma is rubber-dipped knit gloves. Although they provide high dexterity, these gloves provide only moderate protection and are woefully lacking in durability. On construction job sites, one pair will typically last one to three days. Workers require a large number of gloves on an annual basis; the additional overhead costs associated with a high-volume glove program (such as repeated purchasing, tracking, warehousing, distribution, and disposal) often get overlooked, but they are definitely real and detrimental to the bottom line.

Synthetic Leather Alternatives
To address this wide gap between dexterity, protection, and durability, synthetic leather work gloves entered the construction and industrial markets in 1998. These gloves, initially based on sport glove designs, provide excellent hand dexterity without sacrificing protection or durability. Additionally, they are breathable, sweat-wicking, and 100 percent machine washable. Imagine having the dexterity of a football receiver's gloves or golf gloves, but with the protection and durability required of high-abrasion jobs.

Just as with tools, there are different gloves for different trades--it's no longer a "one style fits all" world. A framer should wear a glove specifically designed for his tasks--handling rough wood, swinging a hammer, and manipulating nails--while a package handler's glove is designed to maximize grip on cardboard, allow keyboard data entry, and safely drive a vehicle. The materials and technologies used in these two glove styles are vastly different, just as the tools and equipment are different for these two trades.

An added safety benefit of synthetic leather work gloves is their high level of comfort. At first glance this may not seem like a safety benefit, but the breathability, wickability, and form-fitting nature of the gloves lend themselves to all-day usage. The longer employees keep their gloves on their hands, the less likely they are to incur a hand injury. Even at work sites that do mandate glove usage, employees will remove their gloves if they lack dexterity or comfort. A study performed by Minnesota-based Harmon Glass demonstrated a 66 percent decrease in hand injuries after mandating synthetic leather work gloves for all of their employees (instead of protective knit gloves). This saved Harmon Glass $1.25 million annually in worker's compensation premiums. The dramatic drop in hand injuries was attributed mainly to two factors: increased grip on the glass and increased compliance because of comfort.

In 2003, several more companies entered the synthetic leather work glove market. At the 2005 National Safety Congress Expo, it seemed you couldn't help tripping over companies on every aisle offering "high performance work gloves." This relatively new type of hand protection, often referred to as performance or technical work gloves, is becoming more and more common in diverse workplaces such as glass manufacturing, nuclear power plants, parcel distribution, and petrochemical refineries, in addition to the birthplace of these gloves, the construction site.

While these gloves typically cost more than traditional leather and rubber-dipped knit gloves, most companies will see a decrease in overall program costs because of the increase in safety, performance, durability, and compliance.

Choosing the Right Ones
Here's how to choose the right synthetic leather work gloves for your employees:

1. First, ask yourself whether you need the features and benefits of performance work gloves. The following chart compares them to traditional leather gloves and rubber-dipped knit gloves.


Synthetic leather work gloves

Leather gloves

Rubber-dipped knit gloves





Protection (cut and abrasion)



Low to Medium









Task/Trade Specific




Sweat-wicking palm








Form fit




2. Does any of the tasks require chemical, flame, or heat resistance? Most synthetic leather gloves offer no protection against caustic chemicals and flames and unless specifically heat rated, they are not meant for contact temperatures above 200ºF.

3. Define the tasks or trades that your employees are performing and choose gloves designed specifically for those task/trades. Review the materials and technology in different glove designs so as not to be fooled by companies that just change the name and color of a glove and claim a different usage.

4. Look for an abrasion scale. Gloves should be rated according to their abrasion resistance and, therefore, durability. Ratings of low, med, high, and extreme are typical. Choose the abrasion level required for the task. (Note that these are subjective; one company's "high abrasion" will not necessarily match up with another company's high abrasion designation.)

5. Look at the palm. The materials and technology incorporated into the palm will determine the durability of the glove. Don't pay extra for a lot of features on the back of the glove (unless they're required for the task).

6. Contact the manufacturer. Reputable companies will have an R&D staff dedicated to glove design and glove usage. Ask for the expert, who can guide you to the best glove for the specific application.

7. Be price-sensitive, but realize that you get what you pay for. Prices vary widely between glove styles and glove manufacturers. In most cases, spending a few dollars more for a higher-quality, more durable glove will result in overall cost savings to your glove program.

8. Test and compare. If you've narrowed your choice to a few models from different manufacturers, pit them against one another on the hands of your employees. Survey the results with a detailed questionnaire. Reputable manufacturers will want to know the results of your testing, so share your data with their R&D staffs.

9. Finally, integrate synthetic leather work gloves into your hand protection program. Perform a study that compares costs and benefits during a 6-12 month period with your previous hand PPE. Include the following factors:

  • worker compliance
  • job performance and efficiency
  • injury rates
  • accident costs
  • insurance premiums
  • additional overhead costs (warehousing, disposal, etc.)

10. May the best gloves win.

This article appeared in the April 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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