Creating a Cut-Free Workplace

We are making good progress, but we must continue innovating and concentrating on proper protection for the hazards workers encounter.

AN obvious risk comes with working in any industry that involves handling sharp objects: From glass manufacturing to sheet metal fabrication, construction to warehousing, assembly to repair, cuts and lacerations are bound to occur. It comes with the job, or so it seems. But to safety professionals, that thought is counter-intuitive; all injuries can be prevented.

The good news is that education and improvements in cut-resistant glove technology have helped lower the hand and finger injury rate. According to a 2002 Bureau of Labor Statistics study of lost time injuries in 2000, finger and hand injuries resulting in one or more days of lost time have decreased to just fewer than 208,000. This represents a 25 percent decrease from the 1994 level of 276,000.

According to BLS, since 1994, cuts and lacerations resulting in one or more days of lost time have decreased 26 percent, from 164,000 to 121,000. The reduction in cuts and lacerations has certainly contributed to the overall decline in hand and finger injuries. This decline can be partially attributed to improvements in cut-resistant glove technology. Gloves offer better protection and are more likely to be worn because they have become more comfortable and functional.

But we are still a long way from zero. With this stark reminder, it's obvious we must continue to place importance on the correct protection in environments where shearing, slicing, cutting, and handling sharp or jagged objects is part of the job description. It is also incumbent on glove manufacturers to continue innovations that will improve both the protective qualities and the comfort of cut-resistant gloves.

To achieve a cut-free workplace, three components must be in place: willing and educated workers, a supportive employer, and a quality glove. This triad for success has been reviewed in the past but like so many things in the occupational safety profession, it bears repeating--again and again.

What follows is a review of the workers' responsibility and some insight into their decisions about glove use, employers' requirements, and some simple guidelines to selecting the most important component in creating a cut-free work environment--the cut-resistant work glove--along with a review of recent innovations in cut-resistant glove technology.

Workers' Responsibilities
There is a dangerous mentality present in some workers that wearing gloves is not necessary. It's not cool. Because it is impossible to monitor glove use for all workers all the time, they must want to wear gloves. However, to achieve an environment where glove use is considered the only way to work, workers must have the correct training in glove selection and be motivated to use the correct glove for the job.

No doubt glove selection can be somewhat confusing. This is especially true in occupations where different gloves are required for different hazards, causing workers to change gloves to match the task they are performing. If a worker is wearing the incorrect type of glove, it can result in inadequate protection or even contribute to an injury.

Wearing the incorrect glove can make a task more hazardous because the worker may lack the dexterity or tactile response needed to operate a piece of equipment safely. In this case, he may remove the glove so the task can be completed without interference from an unwieldy glove.

Another concern is that the glove is uncomfortable. Some workers must wear gloves during their entire shift; it has to be comfortable and fit well. Gloves can be uncomfortable, but manufacturers have made significant improvements in developing gloves that provide the required protection with increased comfort. Workers should try different styles of gloves and find a style that is comfortable but provides the required protection.

Once workers have been trained on glove selection and provided comfortable gloves that offer the required protection from cuts and lacerations, there is no excuse for not wearing them.

Employers' Responsibilities
The second leg of the cut-free workplace triad is the company. The company's responsibilities are clearly defined by OSHA in Section 1910.138. OSHA states, "Employers shall select and require employees to use appropriate hand protection when employees' hands are exposed to hazards such as those from . . . severe cuts or lacerations; severe abrasions (and) punctures. . . . Employers shall base the selection of the appropriate hand protection on an evaluation of the performance characteristics of the hand protection relative to the task(s) to be performed, conditions present, duration of use, and the hazards and potential hazards identified."

The first part of the OSHA requirement is to "select." Companies with staff safety professionals should rely on them. These professionals should be given the latitude to override purchasing decisions based on unit cost versus the protection provided. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Actually, unit cost, as we shall see, doesn't always equate to the lowest overall cost, even excluding the cost of increased injuries for using the incorrect glove.

For companies without staff safety professionals, it is important for management to stay current on new products that can improve hand protection by reading publications such as this one, attending trade shows, and visiting manufacturers' Web sites. Another resource is the distributor, who can describe the benefits and limitation of various gloves. So, the first step is to get professional assistance to determine which gloves will work in a specific application.

The second part of the OSHA requirement is to "require employees to use." This step is as important, but unfortunately it is much more difficult to achieve. A good approach is to obtain samples of different gloves that meet the selection requirements for the task and let the workers try them. Not all gloves feel the same, nor does one style of glove feel right for all individuals. Remember, the objective is to get employees to use the glove whenever needed--because they want to (requirements aside). The more comfortable, the more likely it will be worn. The more involvement they feel they have had in selecting the glove, the more likely it will be worn.

More than one style will be required to satisfy the entire workforce. Take the time to find out what really works. If new products are introduced, have workers sample them to see whether they perform better than what is currently being used.

Finally, make sure an adequate supply of each glove type is available. Most gloves lose their protective attributes as they are used. Employees should be advised to discard gloves when they begin to degrade. This is very important with cut-resistant gloves. Turning in the old gloves for a new pair should be easy and encouraged.

The Glove
The third and final leg of the cut-free workplace triad is the glove itself. The components required to produce a glove that will be used, protect workers, and be acceptable to management are performance, comfort, appearance, and cost. We will examine each of these components and its role in creating a cut-free workplace.

Performance
Recent innovations in cut-resistant gloves have improved the most important property in a cut-resistant glove: protection. Cut-resistant gloves are rated by level from zero to five, with five being the highest level of protection. The ASTM International F1790-97 Standard Test Method for Measuring Cut Resistance of Materials Used in Protective Clothing is used to test cut resistance. The test involves a weighted blade and a mandrel on which the fabric is placed. Repetitive passes are made across the fabric until it fails. A cut resistance level rating is then assigned to the fabric.

Advanced synthetic fibers combined with stainless steel or glass allow glove manufacturers to produce gloves with a level five cut-resistance rating and still maintain the comfort and dexterity employees require. In addition to gloves, these fiber blends are also used to make sleeves and other protective clothing.

Comfort
OSHA reports in one study that 70 percent of the workers experiencing hand injuries were not wearing gloves, while the remaining 30 percent were wearing gloves that were either inadequate, damaged, or the wrong type for the type of hazard present. Incredibly, this indicated that all those injured were not wearing the correct glove for the task. This is simply unacceptable today.

Conversely, employees who wear the correct glove for the task do not often sustain hand injuries. A major factor contributing to glove use is comfort, and this is the first place that innovations in cut-resistant technology come into play.

Comfort can be thought of as fit, flexibility, and tactile sensitivity. Original cut-resistant glove materials such as cotton and leather produced gloves with poor flexibility and tactile sensitivity. However, the advances in fiber technology have created one of the most significant step-changes in cut-resistant hand protection. New engineered fibers have excellent comfort properties along with superior cut resistance. Some of the innovations in fiber technology include inclusion of steel wire or glass fibers into the material. Advanced synthetic fibers with superior cut-resistant properties can be blended with cotton to produce a yarn that is both cut resistant and comfortable.

Another improvement in cut-resistant glove comfort is related to innovations in knitting equipment. The fully automated knit glove machine replaced cut and sewn products, which had uncomfortable seams and lacked the fit and tactile sensitivity of a knit glove. These machines saved waste, which cut cost, sewing problems, fabricating time, and inventory.

Thanks to innovations in cut-resistant fibers and knitting equipment, a cut-resistant glove is available for almost any application. If employers make the gloves available and provide the correct instruction on glove selection and use, they can greatly reduce the number of hand injuries. So, what are the barriers?

Appearance
Workers now acknowledge appearance as a factor contributing to the regular use of gloves. Colors, patterns, and styles have become important. If the appearance of hand protection is important, it is good that new fibers can now be produced in a variety of colors to fit an employee's personal preferences. But beyond that, dark colors can help hide dirt. Most high-tech fibers can be washed repeatedly without any degradation in performance. Also, color schemes can help employees and employers know which gloves are correct for each task.

Cost
Perhaps the biggest barrier to regular use of the correct hand protection and the creation of a cut-free workplace is the unit cost of a comfortable glove that provides the required protection. This is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

According to a National Safety Council study, a single disabling hand injury can cost as much as $26,000. Unfortunately, safety professionals often struggle to specify anything other than the least expensive--per unit--glove to do the job. But what is the actual cost of a glove? To determine this, you must consider longevity. One of the advantages in new fiber technology is durability. Not only are high-tech gloves more comfortable, but they last longer.

In a 10-week study done by DuPont at an auto assembly plant, the durability, protection, and cost of an advanced fiber glove was compared to those of cotton and leather. The advanced fiber gloves resulted in a 25 percent savings in total cost for the plant. These results are typical for most industries and most types of advanced fiber technologies.

In today's environment, a company cannot afford the total cost of an injury. Skills necessary to perform most tasks require significant training. Lost time injuries cost a company not only in medical expenses, but in lost productivity and morale. It is an easy problem to overcome: Get the correct gloves on workers' hands.

The Future of Cut-Resistant Gloves
Fiber makers and glove producers will continue to blend new technology and the consumers' demands; even more innovations are on the way. For example, manufacturers are experimenting with the addition of antimicrobial fibers to prevent bacteria from spreading from place to place. Engineered-fiber researchers are focusing on reducing lint for applications such as painting, electronics, and food preparation.

Research into fiber development and knitting advances will continue to be made. The extrusion, pulling, wrapping, and twisting of fibers in new ways will continue to increase cut-resistant properties, improve performance in the knitting machines, and result in even more comfortable gloves.

Understanding the cut-resistant glove offering is well worth the effort. There are still more than 200,000 hand injuries to eliminate in the U.S. manufacturing industry. The National Safety Council (www.nsc.org), OSHA (www.osha.gov), and the National Industrial Glove Distributors Association (www.nigda.org) are good places to get started, and today is a good time to begin.

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

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