The Real Cost of Sweaty Gloves—It's Not Just About Comfort
Over time, health risks for workers from uncomfortable single-use gloves can greatly decrease productivity, encourage more frequent workplace safety violations, and increase the risk of significant medical issues.
There are countless applications and industries that require quality hand protection, both for worker safety and to prevent product damage or contamination. But regardless of the activity, our hands' natural reaction to a tight, hot environment—sweat—can make wearing gloves uncomfortable and even lead to skin problems that make the issue worse. When skin is exposed to sweat for a prolonged time, it weakens and becomes more vulnerable; the moist environment is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and fungus. In short, gloves are a necessary precaution but, without taking steps to reduce sweat buildup, gloves quickly become a source of discomfort and health issues.
When single-use (SU) gloves are a part of your daily routine, ensuring your hands stay healthy is no small feat. The first step is always prevention to avoid future problems down the road, and moisture is one of the most common skin irritants in a glove-protected environment, especially when that moisture stays on the skin for long periods of time.
The tight, hot environment inside single-use gloves is a major cause of sweat and irritation for users in every industry. To say wetness in a single-use glove is uncomfortable is an understatement. Not only does it hinder your ability to perform certain job functions by limiting your dexterity, tactility, and mobility, it also can become a safety hazard because some workers will forego gloves altogether rather than deal with the sticky, oppressive feeling of a wet glove.
Standard single-use gloves provide a non-permeable barrier that safely protects workers' hands in light-duty work environments. However, they also create a highly undesirable result—a harsh occlusive environment between the glove and hand that yields a new set of risks for the wearer: Lack of airflow inhibits proper regulation of the skin environment, glove friction from repeatedly rubbing against the skin harms the upper skin layers, and higher temperatures within the glove increase perspiration and discomfort. Additionally, this occlusive environment serves as a breeding ground for bacteria, fungus, and other nasty elements that can negatively impact your hand’s health.
Over time, health risks for workers from uncomfortable single-use gloves can greatly decrease productivity, encourage more frequent workplace safety violations, and increase the risk of significant medical issues, all of which lead to much higher costs for employers. By limiting hand functionality, perspiration may hinder a worker's ability to perform certain job functions, or cause them to change gloves more frequently. Yet repeatedly alternating from a wet to dry environment, such as by donning and removing several pairs of gloves a day, exacerbates skin irritation. Some workers may forego wearing protection entirely rather than endure the clammy, suffocating feeling of a wet glove, dramatically increasing the risk of safety issues and the potential for worker injuries.
Even if workers endure this discomfort, deeper skin damage and irritation may occur from prolonged exposure to this occlusive, sweaty environment. Hand skin layers can become macerated, reducing the skin’s ability to react defensively to external substances and exposing the skin to even more serious afflictions. As moisture stays on the skin, natural barrier components such as essential lipids are stripped away, leaving the skin more exposed to the harmful elements that thrive in a warm, moist environment. At a deeper level, individual cell function is disrupted as the excessive moisture penetrates down into the dermal layers, preventing the skin from adequately reproducing and rejuvenating. In its normal state, the skin has a low permeability rate, but as barrier function is compromised, that rate begins to increase, exposing the skin to more irritants. The prolonged moisture, increased temperature, and unbalanced pH level provide unwanted opportunities for bacteria and other external contaminants to enter the skin, causing further irritation.
It doesn't get any better when gloves are removed. Compromised skin is exposed to a dramatic fluctuation in temperature as well as a much more arid environment. Workers in the medical, dental, and veterinary fields are more susceptible to this pattern of glove donning and removal and the subsequent irritation because a new pair of gloves is typically required as each new patient is seen. This volatile combination leads to increases in skin irritation, such as dryness, chapping and cracking, that can lead to more serious conditions such as chronic contact dermatitis, one of the most commonly reported occupational diseases. It stems from frequent interaction with the skin and a harsh environment that produces dry, itchy, irritated areas around the points of contact, such as prolonged exposure to an occlusive environment. This can not only be detrimental to the health of the worker, but also extremely costly to the employer. OSHA calculates that a single case of dermatitis can cost more than $11,000 in employer-paid expenses.1
Managing the Problem
Unfortunately, sweating while wearing a single-use glove is inevitable. These gloves are designed to form a non-permeable layer between the outside environment and your hands for protection and safety. Once a glove is donned, the environment within begins to change. Temperature rises, causing hand sweat, which then weakens dermatological barriers. Similarly, risk of exposure to microbial hazards due to damaged skin layers cannot be fully mitigated, as the microbial risks are completely invisible and unidentifiable until symptoms of the infection become visible, such as redness, itchiness, or inflammation.
However, managing the occlusive environment is not as daunting as it seems. Common moisture management techniques include frequent glove changes to limit exposure to prolonged moisture as well as emollients and creams that add an additional layer of protection between glove moisture and the skin.
But glove changes impede productivity, since you need to stop what you are doing to remove and then don a new pair of gloves. And as noted above, constantly alternating between environmental extremes can do more harm than good. Likewise, in certain instances, the slippery layer of a cream could negatively impact dexterity and tactile sensation, leading to potential hazards and compromises in safety within the work environment.2 Skin care products must not undercut the efficacy of antimicrobial soaps and rubs, nor compromise the glove materials used in the working environment. Adding lotions or creams can complicate the overall compliance process, unnecessarily increase donning time and ultimately increase cost per use.
While these techniques may be the traditional methods of managing moisture in the occlusive environment, they aren't necessarily the best solutions. Newer technologies within a glove help manage this interior environment and make the wearing experience much more comfortable and productive, while providing benefits that protect skin from the occlusive environment itself. One such technology incorporates an absorbent liner that wicks moisture from the skin. Creating a dryer ecosystem within the glove provides a healthier environment for the hand. Additionally, therapeutic properties and protective ingredients manufactured right into a glove can limit the potential for irritation from the occlusive environment on the inside.
A case of contact dermatitis is not only a health issue for the worker, but the discomfort felt while inflicted can decrease productivity, as well. To combat these risks, choosing the right glove—in terms of thickness, material, size, and performance technologies—is essential as these attributes all contribute to creating the ideal environment to promote proper hand health as well as optimal function. In a variety of workplaces, it is necessary for people to wear single-use gloves to protect their hands and to protect what is being touched. The occlusive environment created when a glove is donned causes additional hand health challenges on the interior of the glove and must be taken into consideration to maximize efficiency and minimize discomfort.
Selecting the best method depends on the user—is there time to change gloves or apply a sticky cream before donning gloves, or is it best to use gloves that will provide a more balanced, safer hand health environment from the start? The choice affects user health and safety as well as business costs and productivity, so be sure to consider the occlusive environment and its effects before selecting the best gloves for your purposes.
This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.