Frequently Asked Questions: Ergonomics and Hand Protection

When the hands become fatigued, often the entire body experiences fatigue, which reduces productivity. Awkward, painful postures are another concern.

SOARING medical costs and production losses resulting from repetitive motion injuries and related musculoskeletal disorders, including carpal tunnel syndrome, are inciting safety personnel to rapidly advance their consideration of ergonomically designed products that can reduce these types of injuries. Below are answers to common questions related to ergonomics and hand protection products--their safety, performance, quality improvements, and cost advantages.

Why is it becoming increasingly important to use hand protection products with an ergonomic design?
Individuals who do not use the proper hand protection for a specific task may end up working in an unsafe manner. Ergonomically designed hand protection can maximize worker protection while increasing productivity, with the added benefit of reducing hand fatigue. Gloves made of cut-resistant yarns, for example, can be formed to the natural shape of the hand to enhance a worker's movement, allowing the hands to bend and the fingers to flex more freely.

Comfort may be linked to the gloves' ability to protect from heat or cold, manage moisture (perspiration), hydrate the skin, and enhance the skin's elasticity.

Workers handling parts in an auto body or boat assembly operation, for instance, must be able to grip small, oily parts without exerting extra force. When a worker does not have a secure wet grip, the person may change his or her posture to compensate or place more stress on the muscles and joints than would be necessary if the grip were adequate. This situation could indirectly lead to back injury or a musculoskeletal disorder such as carpal tunnel syndrome--especially if the worker is performing the task repeatedly.

Why are ergonomically designed hand protection products more in vogue now than in the past?
As with everything else, the demands on hand protection products are increasing. Companies and their workers have more requirements related to their safety programs and hand protection products than ever before. More stringent OSHA regulations and a growing number of lawsuits require employers to provide safe equipment and a safe working environment. Most manufacturers monitor lost time work injuries and consider them a serious issue in terms of employee welfare and the bottom line. Employers want to know whether the hand protection products and safety equipment they are providing benefit workers in terms of safety and productivity.

What are some features I should look for in ergonomically designed gloves?
Beyond protection, fit and feel (comfort) are always essential. If the gloves do not fit like a second skin and allow maximum flexibility, then other ergonomic benefits will have a smaller performance impact. Proper fit and comfort are especially important for workers who suffer from arthritis or may not have greater levels of muscle strength.

Gloves that are too small may restrict movement and blood flow and lead to cramping, hand fatigue, and perspiration. When the hands become fatigued, often the entire body experiences fatigue, which reduces productivity. Gloves that are too large and bulky decrease a worker's dexterity and may result in the worker's straining to perform the required tasks. Gloves that are too large also can pose a safety hazard for individuals who are working near equipment with moving parts or pinch points.

Glove comfort, however, goes beyond fit. Depending upon the application, comfort may be linked to the gloves' ability to protect from heat or cold, manage moisture (perspiration), hydrate the skin, and enhance the skin's elasticity. Gloves should also be easy to put on and take off, which will reduce stress and strain on muscles and joints, as well as the time needed to don and doff the product.

In some cases, having an adequate level of cut protection may be considered an ergonomic benefit. If a worker must handle a knife or sharp glass and is fearful of receiving a cut injury, for example, he or she may grip the object tighter than necessary, which results in increased stress, strain, and hand fatigue. In situations where grip is inadequate, the risk of cuts may increase.

Are ergonomically designed hand protection products more critical for specific jobs in certain industries?
Absolutely. Just as different products offer the safety features required for certain applications (e.g., cut resistance for glass handling and insulation for workers performing tasks in cold environments), gloves with tailored ergonomic features are better suited for specific tasks.

In most instances, a glove's ergonomic features will be combined with other performance/safety characteristics that are required for the application.

In most instances, a glove's ergonomic features will be combined with other performance/safety characteristics that are required for the application. In an auto body assembly operation, for example, workers will need gloves with cut resistance because they are handling trimmed steel with sharp edges. They also will require the dexterity and tactile sensitivity needed to position small nuts, bolts, washers, and screws in the steel sheet. Because the materials handled are often coated with a fine layer of oil, workers will need gloves with oil resistance and a wet grip. If parts are being welded into place, the gloves also must provide heat protection.

Why are ergonomically designed gloves so critical for workers within the chemical industry?
Because workers within the chemical industry are constantly handling hazardous materials, they must have the dexterity and tactile sensitivity to feel and safely handle equipment and containers, including small glassware. Workers also should be able to freely move their hands and work for extended periods of time without experiencing cramping and hand fatigue.

For many tasks within processing and production plants--whether workers are processing chemicals or using chemicals for production tasks, such as appliance assembly--the first priority is to protect workers' hands from chemicals and prevent permeation. Yet, workers still will need enough tactile sensitivity, dexterity, and wet grip to handle chemicals and equipment safely.

Flexibility is also important because many tasks within chemical processing and refining plants and manufacturing facilities are repetitious. With today's glove production technology, all of these performance characteristics are possible and provide measurable results in terms of safety, productivity, and comfort.

What ergonomic factors should be considered when selecting hand protection for workers handling harsh or hazardous chemicals?
Again, an appropriate level of protection from the chemicals being handled is number one. And, as mentioned above, proper sizing is a must. An easy on/off design is also a priority so workers can put the gloves on and take them off without making contact with the outside contaminated surface.

Gloves also must be appropriate for the task and provide the grip and dexterity required. Fingertip design is a consideration for applications in which workers must handle glass and small parts, such as test tubes and beakers. The fingertips of many gloves are conical-shaped and larger than a human fingertip, which decreases tactile sensitivity and results in sloppiness.

Technology used by some glove manufacturers allows the fingertips to be form-fitted for greater tactility. The choice of materials is important, with nitrile, neoprene, natural rubber, some knitted yarns and rubber-coated knitted liners more conducive to a good fingertip design. Unsupported gloves are usually more appropriate for chemical applications than supported gloves; today's best gloves utilize the most chemically resistant materials and are designed to be lightweight, enhance dexterity, and conform to the hand and fingers.

What are some of the consequences of not wearing ergonomically designed hand protection?
A higher risk of injury is always present; a worker performing a task without proper hand protection is comparable to a person using the wrong tool for a job such as maintenance. Reduced quality and lower productivity are other consequences because precision may be lost and there is often a lack of repeatability.

There is significant economic value in preventing physical problems such as back injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, and nerve damage. Companies also can gain by improving productivity. For example, more parts can be produced per hour if workers wear gloves that provide a better grip or tactile sensitivity and reduce hand fatigue.

Ergonomically designed products also can reduce costs associated with poor product quality. If, for example, a worker does not have the tactile sensitivity needed to precisely position a nut or thin metal washer on a piece of trimmed steel so a mating part matches up with the hole, the part may later require costly re-work. Such tasks must be repeatable over a work shift and across thousands of pieces produced. Six Sigma goals indicate only six defects are acceptable per million parts, which means only six nuts or holes can be misaligned in a million assemblies!

How do I know whether hand protection products are designed with ergonomics in mind?
Ergonomic benefits should be communicated as part of a product's value proposition. If the value proposition is only about cut or chemical protection, for example, you probably can assume the ergonomics of the user were not considered when the gloves were designed and manufactured. Ergonomic benefits should be clearly stated in all product marketing materials and literature. The buyer should also ask, "What ergonomic benefits will your products provide?"

At this time, only a handful of glove manufacturers are focusing on ergonomics as part of their product design and manufacturing process. This is likely to change, however, as more users request gloves with ergonomic features that offer measurable safety and productivity advantages.

This article appeared in the April 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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