Looking at Total System Cost

Like hand in glove, high performance and lower cost can go together.

TODAY, businesses that require workers to wear cut-resistant gloves are faced with a dilemma. Greater safety awareness together with regulatory requirements, higher worker's compensation premiums, and other factors are prompting companies to mandate higher levels of protection. Businesses seek to avoid the lost time and high costs of hand injuries, which are estimated to run from $10,000 to $30,000 or more per case. At the same time, thanks to the availability of advanced technologies, including new fibers and coatings, the industry is able to produce gloves that are more comfortable and provide greater dexterity to workers. As workers become aware of better products, they often demand this increased comfort and flexibility.

However, while advances in glove manufacture are welcome news from the standpoints of reduced injury risk and greater worker adoption, they come with a higher up-front price tag.

On One Hand, Protection--On the Other, Price
At first glance, technical materials used to meet demands for more comfort and protection are more expensive than such traditional materials as leather and cotton. The resulting higher price, however, is only one of the factors in selecting the right glove.

The safety manager and the purchaser who want to achieve the best possible protection for the lowest possible cost should be looking at only one thing: the total system cost. A glove's lifespan is as important as initial cost per piece or pair. A glove that lasts longer can be a lot less expensive in the long run than a glove that must be replaced frequently. In other words, how well does the glove withstand deterioration during usage?

Selection should be further qualified by asking how the glove responds to exposure to chemicals and whether it is abrasion-resistant and UV-sensitive. All of these factors can significantly influence the lifespan of a glove. In the final analysis, a pair of gloves at $6 with a lifetime of 10 days becomes a lot cheaper than a pair of $3 gloves with a lifetime of only three days.

Even more important in the total system cost picture are usage and protection. Comfort and dexterity directly affect how willing workers are to use the gloves. And unless they consistently wear protection, hand injuries can result--with the high costs of medical care, therapy, lost time, and insurance premiums. The combination of longer useful life and reduced incidence of hand injuries can add up to lower overall system costs.

Following are the stories of two companies that discovered the cost benefits, as well as the safety advantages, of using cut-resistant gloves featuring high-performance polyethylene (HPPE) fibers.

Milgard Windows
Milgard Windows, a leader in custom-made windows and doors, operates 15 production facilities across the United States, as well as two tempering plants where glass is produced and a vinyl protruding facility. Workers on the production floor must cut and weld vinyl sticks with edges that can cause tear injuries to the hand. They also handle glass units with sharp edges.

When Environmental Health & Safety Specialist Terry Keel joined the company, he found workers were wearing all types of gloves--and none was performing properly. "People were wearing gloves that weren't suited to the work; they weren't cut resistant or were so bulky that workers would remove the fingers of the gloves to be able to do their jobs," said Keel. As a result, there was a high incidence rate of lacerations.

Keel conducted a year-long test of different types of cut-resistant gloves and ultimately selected three different styles manufactured with Dyneema&reg. One type is thin and tight-fitting white glove with a light polyurethane palmcoating to allow sawyers and glass "flippers" to feel imperfections in vinyl and the dexterity to handle glass. Another, thicker style gray polyurethane palm glove is used by corner cleaners, glass setters, sawyers, and quality control personnel. A third glove type with a thick, blue nitrile palm provides a firm grip and dexterity to warehouse personnel who carry doors and windows. These gloves meet Milgard's exacting requirements for light weight, comfort, dexterity, and protection.

The results have been dramatic: The number of laceration injuries at his facility has been reduced by more than 75 percent. At one of the tempering plants, workers have gone for more than 120 days without a single laceration. "Employees really like the gloves, so they wear them all the time," said Keel. He explained that although the gloves are more expensive than the previous types used by the company, they have led to a significant reduction in overall costs. "First of all, we have reduced the number of types of gloves we purchase and keep in our inventory, reducing costs. In addition, these new gloves last longer than the less expensive gloves. More importantly, fewer laceration injuries mean less lost productivity, fewer visits to our clinic for treatment, and reduced worker's compensation premiums. I think we all win."

Otis Elevator
At Otis Elevator Company, which manufactures, installs, modernizes, and maintains elevators and escalators, field mechanics are issued gloves to protect their hands from sheet metal, steel I-beams, and tools including wire strippers and box cutters. When Ed Bulakites, manager of Safety and Environmental Control for the Eastern Region, evaluated cut-resistant gloves for the mechanics, he wanted to make sure they would be worn. "Comfort and dexterity are key factors in persuading employees to wear protective gloves. Also, the mechanics want gloves whose appearance doesn't make them feel conspicuous," said Bulakites, who is a member of ASSE's Board of Trustees.

After learning about the different options available, Otis selected high-quality gloves made with the same Dyneema fiber. "We wanted a better product so that the gloves would fit better and provide greater protection," Bulakites said. "As an added benefit, we have found that the higher-priced gloves actually save money because they last longer. Instead of issuing 30 pairs of cheap gloves to a mechanic over a year, we now might issue five or 10 pairs during that same time, and that means lower costs overall."

More Comfort and Protection
Today, more than 50 percent of the gloves used in environments where workers need protection against mechanical hazards are still made from leather. In addition, cotton is still widely used. However, there are many types of man-made fibers available that can offer better protection and more comfort. Since the introduction of technical fibers such as aramids and HPPE, the number of hand injuries from mechanical hazards has decreased dramatically. But this is not the final stage of this development. End users continue to ask for more protection and continuously request greater comfort, and they are right to do so because comfort has a direct link to safety. Workers wearing uncomfortable gloves will take them off during work, whether the discomfort is caused by reduced dexterity or because the gloves cause sweating or irritation. And that is when they are unprotected again and hand injuries occur.

There are many means to create greater comfort and protection against mechanical hazards in gloves. As customers such as Otis and Milgard have found, one of the best ways is to use man-made materials such as HPPE fibers. For the highest levels of cut resistance, HPPE often is combined with glass or steel fiber. Such composite and spun yarns enable thinner gloves with even better protection. The different coatings that are used today also contribute significantly to an improved grip and protection.

Better Materials Reduce Total System Cost
Given the current technologies--the fibers and coatings, and the knowledge base built by users and suppliers--it is possible to resolve the paradox implied by the simultaneous needs for more comfort, better protection, and lower overall cost. Safety managers should avoid short-sighted views of cost based on purchase price alone. Instead, they should seek lower total system costs.

How does the glove perform? What is its lifespan? How comfortable is it? Is it really being worn? All of these questions have to be answered before a total system cost can be calculated. Only then can purchasers select the cheapest solution at the right level of protection.

Fortunately, there are many companies employing this methodology in selecting the right glove. They have the opportunity to offer their workers more protection and comfort at lower total system costs. And in the end, improved safety--and worker satisfaction--is the real goal.

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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