A Basic Guide for Selecting the Proper Gloves

More than one-third of all workplace accidents involve hand injuries (and these injuries potentially cost as much as $26,000 each).

OUR hands are two the most valuable and widely used tools in the workplace. Proper glove selection is essential in protecting these tools from on-the-job hazards. All too often, workers are faced with a very limited understanding of why hand protection is needed or even how to select a glove properly for their application. The wrong glove often is selected for the job task, which risks injury to the worker or a loss in productivity.

Gloves used by workers today must not only perform to the task for which they are selected, but also fit well and provide sufficient levels of comfort so workers will make a conscious choice to wear them. However, the requirements for performance, fit, and comfort vary from application to application. Over the years, studies have confirmed that the comfort level of a pair of gloves directly affects a worker's willingness to wear the gloves. If the gloves do not fit properly or are uncomfortable to wear, the worker will, more than likely, prefer to work without gloves. Of course, unprotected hands are much more susceptible to injury and exposure to harmful substances, which can lead to increased medical and worker's compensation costs, a drop in productivity, or a decline in employee morale.

Knowing which type of glove works for the job task will greatly increase worker safety and productivity. It is important to remember that no single glove will provide protection in all applications or against every hazard or substances. By choosing the right material and construction, gloves should protect the hands from the hazards for which they were selected. It is essential that employers and their employees know which gloves are suitable for their tasks. Correct selection is important both to remain in compliance with OSHA's general hand protection standard found in 29 CFR 1910.138 and to protect workers from injury. With more than one-third of all workplace accidents involving hand injuries (and these injuries potentially costing as much as $26,000 per injury), many companies are continuing to focus on gloves that provide their workers with the best hand protection possible. According to OSHA Fact Sheet 93-03, the financial cost of these injuries is more than $300 million per year in lost production time, medical expenses, and worker's compensation.

Even though OSHA has established guidelines regarding hand protection, glove selection ultimately rests with the employer by conducting a hazard risk assessment. This selection is influenced not only by how well the products protect the workers, but also by how the products and their costs affect the company's bottom line.

Gloves for Specific Needs
Innovations in glove materials and technology have resulted in an ever-increasing selection of gloves for just about any hand protection application. But with such a wide variety of choices, which glove is the right glove for the job?

In the manufacturing environment, hand injuries generally result from physical or chemical hazards. With the correct general- or special-purpose gloves, many injuries are largely preventable.

Chemical protection
For example, gloves that offer protection against chemicals are vital in protecting the user against chemical exposure, burns, and other hazards. These chemical hazards can come in the form of liquids, powders, vapors, or gases. When chemical resistant gloves are needed, be sure to carefully evaluate each glove individually.

The specification should be based on the type of job for which the glove is being used and its resistance to the chemical. Typical glove materials for chemical protection are latex, nitrile, neoprene, polyvinylchloride, or other polymers. For chemical mixtures or jobs where multiple hazards are present, it may be necessary to wear gloves that have the highest chemical resistance or in some cases wearing a combination of different types of gloves.

Employers should refer to the chemical's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for selection of chemical protective gloves or consult with the manufacturer or supplier directly before choosing the gloves.

Cut and puncture protection
The material handling and product assembly worker may require gloves that can protect against cuts, punctures, and abrasion while providing high levels of dexterity and tactile sensitivity. Generally, gloves made from leather, canvas, cotton and cotton blends, or other synthetics are used in most material handling or assembly line job tasks.

In the construction industry, workers need protection from abrasive surfaces, wood and metal splinters, and injuries associated with cut or scrapes, repetitive motions, and vibration. Gloves manufactured from leathers or advanced fibers and polymers such as Kevlar® and Dyneema® provide superior protection from cuts and scrapes as compared to cotton, canvas, or standard synthetic string knit gloves. Additional protection can be provided through various coatings applied to the glove or by lining the gloves with impact- or vibration-dampening gels or pads.

Inspection and Care
An important factor to remember is that all gloves need to be inspected on a regular basis to avoid glove failure. In most cases, no glove will last longer than a few days; cleaning certain types of gloves is not always practical or cost effective. Decontamination or laundering must be effective in removing the contaminant and still maintaining the integrity of the gloves. A changeout schedule is an easy and efficient way to ensure gloves will hold up in multiple applications. This will help to minimize overuse of a single pair of gloves. Many glove manufacturers will offer their opinion as to the lifespan of their gloves, but in the reality of the workplace it is very difficult to determine that. Inspect gloves prior to each time they are used, replacing them immediately if any damage or degradation is found.

Questions for Proper Glove Selection
During the glove selection process, employers should identify the key elements that are required for employees to perform their jobs safely.

1. Are chemical hazards present? Do the chemical hazards occur in liquid, gas, powder, or vapor form? Will the workers' hands be subject to light splashes or total immersion in the chemical?

2. Are abrasions and punctures from sharp objects a problem? Many gloves are designed to protect from slashes caused by sharp objects, but few provide high levels of puncture resistance from objects such as the ragged edges of a piece of metal or glass. Will the abrasions or punctures occur to the palm, top of the hand, or both?

3. Is a secure grip vital to the application? When workers cannot grasp objects securely, especially those that are wet or oily, the objects may slide through their hands and result in injuries or damaged products.

4. Is dexterity important? In today's fast-paced manufacturing environment, many employees are working at high speeds and must have the dexterity and tactile sensitivity to handle small parts or objects quickly.

5. Which characteristic is more important: protection or dexterity? Thinner-gauge gloves offer more dexterity; heavier-gauge gloves offer greater hand protection.

6. Are the gloves properly sized for individual workers? Gloves that are too large will slide around on the hands, won't provide protection where it is needed, and could become caught in machinery or moving parts. Gloves that are too snug can decrease a worker's dexterity and may become so uncomfortable that workers will remove them. Keep in mind that men and women have different requirements relative to glove sizes and shapes.

7. Will the gloves be required to offer protection from heat or cold temperatures? Insulated gloves should be selected to protect from extreme temperatures. Also, consider how long the worker will be exposed to these temperatures.

8. Will the worker be wearing the gloves for a few minutes at a time or all day? Comfort is more important for longer wear.

Involve the Workers
Carefully evaluate these factors, then select the glove that offers the combination of features needed for the job task. Select the glove style that offers the optimal balance of protection and dexterity. Employers also may want to consider offering multiple types or brands of gloves for each job task. Giving their workers choices in glove protection can sometimes promote buy-in to wearing them. In some cases, however, keeping it simple and offering only one glove choice is preferred.

Companies using gloves must continually evaluate them to determine whether they are first and foremost protecting the worker, while still promoting productivity. In addition, worker feedback pertaining to the gloves and their job task should be reviewed frequently--again, to help promote overall buy-in to the hand protection program and to ensure the right glove is performing the task for which it was selected.

In some cases, working with glove manufacturers or safety supply distributors can help to identify the proper protection that is needed for the job task. Proper glove selection will increase safety within the confines of your company. It also will bolster employee morale and help increase your overall productivity.

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

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