A New World of Choices

Because industrial glove materials have become so advanced, most development of new glove technologies today tends to focus on fit, function, and style.

IF you work with your hands, chances are you or someone you work with has experienced a hand injury. In fact, about 1 million U.S. workers a year receive emergency department treatment for acute hand injuries, which range from cuts, blisters, and abrasions to lacerations, burns, punctures, and fractures.

In addition to the physical pain, hand injuries take a financial toll. The average hand injury claim has now exceeded $6,000, with each lost time worker's compensation claim reaching nearly $7,500, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Safety Council. The overall drain on employee productivity becomes apparent, especially when you consider there are about 110,000 estimated lost time hand injuries every year, according to BLS.

A study conducted by the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety found glove use significantly reduced hand injury by 60 percent. Fortunately for workers who need hand protection, glove technology has evolved to the point where, today, many options exist for hand protection that can be matched to specific worker tasks and applications.

A Brief History
Like other forms of personal protective equipment, such as eye and hearing protection, development of industrial hand protection products initially focused on protecting the worker. Later, focus shifted to worker comfort, then to functionality and performance issues, and finally to style issues.

In the first half of the 20th Century, the only hand protection products available were basic cotton or leather work gloves that offered minimal protection from cuts and hazardous substances. Fit and function were an afterthought, at best. Glove industry historians note that early glove innovations sought to improve resistance to cuts and abrasions, as well as oils and chemicals, while increasing comfort and wearability. The result was development of coated cotton gloves using natural rubber, neoprene (the first commercial synthetic rubber), and other synthetics. Most glove coating technology at this time was manual, though automated dipping technology was introduced in the 1940s. This helped glove suppliers boost capacity to meet the increasing demands of the nation's growing workforce.

By mid-century, advances in glove styles and compound dipping were complemented by production innovations designed to improve cost and quality. In addition to improvements in cut resistance, this era saw the development of coated gloves with textured finishes to meet grip requirements.>{? In the mid-1970s, the formation of OSHA led to an increased focus on worker safety products. Available technologies were keeping pace. PVC-impregnated cotton gloves were quickly followed by nitrile-laminated fabrics for better fit, comfort, and protection. Nitrile-related technology continued in the 1980s with the increased use of palm coating for industrial applications, as well as use in unsupported gloves. This development improved comfort, durability, and cut and chemical resistance; it helped meet the burgeoning high-tech industry's need for protecting products and processes from contamination by workers, in addition to protecting workers themselves. Knitted gloves with engineered fibers also became popular in the 1980s and allowed for reduced weight, increased flexibility, and better resistance to cuts and abrasions. This development was followed in the 1990s by natural rubber flat dip technology, which began to replace the use of leather gloves. Seamless technology, first introduced in the 1970s, proliferated in the 1980s as users were drawn to comfort and dexterity advantages. Today, the industrial glove industry is seeing the use of more high-performance synthetic materials, along with engineered, high-performance yarns made of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene and aramid fibers, which offer strength properties for cut resistance. Some manufacturers are even using stainless steel.

The first thin-gauge gloves were made of natural rubber latex and were developed primarily to protect health care professionals and patients from the spread of germs. However, user sensitivity to the proteins found in latex prompted the industry to find alternatives in materials such as vinyl, nitrile, and neoprene.

Latex raw material pricing has become a big issue in recent years. Supply and demand economics have driven latex prices up by 80 percent since January 2005, in part in response to world demand for natural rubber in a variety of applications and industries, as well as reduced rubber yields because of bad weather and conversion of rubber plantations into new crops. Although natural rubber latex remains the most common material for both unsupported and supported gloves, nitrile gloves have become especially attractive compared with latex gloves for high-tech/cleanroom applications because of their cost, cleanliness, comfort, and consistency attributes. They also provide advantages compared with vinyl gloves, which primarily offer gross contamination control in applications that are not concerned with cleanliness. In fact, vinyl gloves are banned in parts of the world and in certain use areas and have a relatively high failure rate in use.

Development of Standards and Regulations
Concurrent with the development of new glove technologies in the 1970s and beyond was the development and subsequent refinement of new industry standards and regulations relating to gloves and other PPE. OSHA's Hand Protection Standard, 29 CFR 1910.138, requires that "employers shall select and require employees to use appropriate hand protection [and that] 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 American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) originally published its ASTM F739-99a Standard Test Method for Resistance of Protective Clothing Materials to Permeation by Liquids or Gases under Conditions of Continuous Contact in 1981, followed by ASTM F 1383-96 Standard Test Method for Resistance of Protective Clothing Materials to Permeation by Liquids or Gases under Conditions of Intermittent Contact.

The International Safety Equipment Association also has a glove standard: ANSI/ISEA 105-2005, American National Standard for Hand Protection Selection Criteria, which provides a consistent, numeric-scale method for manufacturers to rate their products against certain contaminants and exposures, including puncture and abrasion resistance, chemical permeation and degradation, detection of holes, and heat and flame resistance. New to the 2005 edition of the standard are tests and selection criteria for vibration reduction and dexterity. Extensive use of thin gauge gloves in the cleanroom industry means that glove manufacturers need to claim suitability for specific cleanroom environments (class of performance) and antistatic performance. The Institute for Environmental Sciences and Technology (IEST) has a standard specific to cleanroom gloves and finger cots: IEST-RP-CC005.3, Gloves and Finger Cots Used in Cleanrooms and other Controlled Environments.

While industrial glove standards in the United States are voluntary, in Europe they are law. All gloves sold in European Community countries must comply with the 1992 Personal Protective Equipment Directive for the European Community and carry the CE marking.

One of the key issues with industrial glove standards that has yet to be addressed is glove nomenclature. Users don't always understand, for example, that a "cut-resistant" glove is not "cut-proof" or that the glove may resist certain types or levels of cuts but not others.

Today's Advances & Comfort Issues
Today, the industrial glove industry as a whole is in a bit of an investment slump in terms of new technologies. The main problems are ones of globalization and commoditization as offshore imports (primarily from China and other Asian nations) seek to drive down prices to grab market share. In developed countries, however, investment in glove R&D is more aggressive, even going back in the supply chain to raw material suppliers.

Because industrial glove materials have become so advanced, most development of new glove technologies today tends to focus on issues of fit, function, and style. Proper fit is important because it translates to improved productivity; if the glove is more comfortable to wear, users are more likely to comply with wearing protocols. Fit issues include finger length (not so long that the glove might get caught in moving equipment) and overall sizing (hand circumference not so small that it reduces the user's range of motion), as well as task-specific fit attributes, such as including ventilated backs on general-purpose work gloves. The important take-away here is that proper protection does not have to be uncomfortable.

Glove comfort also extends to the effect of wearing gloves on the user's skin. Many unsupported gloves, for example, are flock-lined on the inside--coated with cotton or synthetic fibers--to improve extended wearing comfort. In addition, cotton linings provide good absorption of perspiration and good hand comfort, compared to rayon and synthetic fibers. One of the emerging comfort issues industrial glove manufacturers are seeking to solve, in addition to latex-related allergies, is dry skin. Gloves that contain emollients inside to help keep hands moisturized and soft are under investigation.

Function refers to the performance of the glove: Does the glove provide protection from the specific hazards found in the work setting? This can refer to chemical resistance, abrasion resistance, cut resistance, puncture resistance, dexterity, and contamination control. Recent events including 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina have prompted the industry to think about how to combine different functionalities into a single glove; for example, a glove that provides cut/puncture resistance and dexterity along with protection against germs for post-hurricane cleanup activities.

Finally, style is becoming increasingly important among wearers--especially with the emergence of the Generation Y workforce. In fact, gloves and eyewear tend to be ahead of most other PPE in terms of style; and anecdotal evidence suggests style and comfort do indeed improve compliance with wearing protocols. Leading glove suppliers are taking cues from the retail clothing and performance athletic clothing markets to develop trendy yet functional styles that people want to wear.

Vinyl, Nitrile, or Latex?

Material

Nitrile

Latex

Vinyl

ESD Qualities

Inherently static dissipative; appropriate for ESD-sensitive applications

Inherently insulative; not appropriate for ESD-sensitive applications

Static dissipative; appropriate for applications without cleanliness requirements

Composition

Consistent in composition and cleanliness

Composition varies day-to-day and from season-to-season

Consistent in composition, but cleanliness varies from supplier to supplier and grade to grade

Durability

Durable and stands up to rigorous cleaning

Not as durable as nitrile

Poor durability; breaks down in use

Protection

Excellent chemical protection over range of chemicals; good performance with solvents

Limited protection over range of chemicals

Limited chemical protection

UV Vulnerability

Not significantly affected by UV light or heat

Easily degraded by UV light and heat without the proper additive

Not affected by UV light

Elasticity

Lower elastic memory; retains approximately 50 percent of stretch force for extra comfort during long wearing periods

High elastic memory; retains 85 percent of stretch force over a short time period, causing user hand fatigue

Not elastic

Synthetic or Natural

Synthetic product with no natural latex proteins

Natural rubber latex protein allergens increase risk of Type 1 hypersensitivity

Synthetic product with no natural rubber latex proteins

Comfort

Quickly approaching feel (comfort) advantages of latex

Traditionally offers a comfortable feel

Baggy/clumsy fit

Conclusion
In the face of increased globalization and commoditization of the glove market, leading suppliers of hand protection products are differentiating their offerings with continued innovation that is driven by market research and testing and supported by training at all levels of the supply and user chain. The most successful glove suppliers also are finding ways to bundle other PPE with gloves for head-to-toe protection that can't be matched by low-cost offshore suppliers. Some examples of this include kit preparation for disaster preparedness.

As we move through the early part of the 21st Century, those glove users not content with purchasing a me-too product will be able to take advantage of gloves with detailed performance specifications and consumer-driven styles designed to match individual user needs with the right glove for the job.

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

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

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