Dexterity, performance, fit, durability, comfort, weight, style -- all of these factors must be taken into consideration when manufacturing or purchasing gloves. (Waubridge Specialty Fabrics photo)

New Wrinkles in Hand Protection

Glove manufacturers are addressing the need for gloves affording higher dexterity.

When it comes to the industrial workplace, hand protection is a critical part of personal safety. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, injuries to the hand, wrist, and finger account for the second-highest (23 percent) number of workplace injuries, with approximately 110,000 lost-time hand injuries annually. Whether your job exposes you to extreme heat or cold, cuts, or chemicals, the importance of reliable, durable gloves simply can't be ignored.

And hand protection isn't just smart, it's required: OSHA's hand protection standard, 29 CFR 1910.138, mandates that employers select and require employees to use gloves when employees’ hands are exposed to certain hazards. In addition, the International Glove Association recently launched a new certification and standards program to decrease confusion over standard ratings. Across the globe, more and more employers, manufacturers, and industry associations are focusing more seriously on the importance of hand protection.

But it's not just about providing employees with gloves; it's also about providing them with the right gloves. While the majority of occupational hand injuries are a result of not wearing gloves at all, 30 percent of injuries occur because the gloves are "inadequate, damaged or wrong for the type of hazard present," according to BLS. It is critical that employers provide gloves for their employees that are appropriate to their specific work environment -– which can vary significantly depending on the job at hand. In addition to durability, factors such as style, comfort, fit, and many others contribute to the performance of gloves. It's important to choose gloves that aren't too big, too small, or uncomfortable.

The key business driver for all industries that require hand protection is ensuring employee safety through proper PPE without sacrificing productivity. And this can be solved through one important attribute: higher dexterity gloves.

Many aspects contribute to a glove's level of dexterity. Often, however, dexterity is lost as durability, or thickness, is increased. And while durability is extremely important in these occupational environments, having gloves that are as stiff and unmoving as oven mitts isn't ideal when fine motor skills are required. In addition to being a safety hazard, a lack of dexterity also can be a deterrent for productivity and efficiency. These factors can take a serious financial toll on a company -– from slower work paces to injury and worker's compensation claims. The bottom line is that both employees and employers are at risk when proper hand protection isn't in use.

No More 'One Size Fits All'
So how are today's glove manufacturers responding to requests for durable, high-performing, and dexterous gloves? By seeking out new materials, technologies, and manufacturing techniques that will allow them to offer employers and employees the ultimate combination of performance and dexterity.

Men and women who work in fields that require hand protection want a single glove they can don to perform all of their work duties, a glove that can be difficult to find. Minimizing the weight of the garment without compromising its performance -– or spending a large amount of money -– can be a challenge. Take, for example, the thermal hand protection market. Knits have dominated as thermal liners for decades, typically providing the level of thermal protection and durability needed and, depending on which fibers are used, significant abrasion resistance. But they can be quite expensive, especially if high-cost performance fibers such as aramids are used in the fabric.

What's the solution? Today, thermal hand protection is moving toward materials that offer superior heat resistance at the lowest possible weight, which is key in enhancing dexterity. One such example is the use of non-wovens. Non-wovens for thermal protection provide the same high level of protection that wovens offer, but at a much lighter basis weight. They are capable of trapping air inside their construction, adding to their insulating performance. They also tend to be less expensive because the process to create them is less costly than woven fabrics. Historically, non-wovens have been used as liners but typically needed to be supported or have additional layers between the liner and the hand, foot, or body. Some non-wovens today have addressed issues with comfort to eliminate the need for those additional layers, reducing the overall weight and improving overall dexterity.

Other techniques also can help enhance performance and dexterity, such as stitch-bonding. Stitch-bonding a non-woven provides abrasive resistance and enhances doffing and donning of the gloves – another important element of dexterity. It also provides the durability that knitted liners have historically provided but at an overall lower cost and higher performance level.

Another way glove manufacturers are trying to enhance dexterity is by combining layers of materials to reduce the bulk of the glove. Laminated composites can aid in that approach; the move from two-dimensional to three-dimensional construction in high-performance gloves, such as those for the fire service, is bringing more of a mechanics style to a traditionally bulky and low-dexterity product. The three-dimensional construction allows for a much better fit overall, and therefore much better dexterity.

So when it comes to hand protection, a "one size fits all" approach to gloves simply doesn't cut it anymore. Dexterity, performance, fit, durability, comfort, weight, style -– all of these factors are crucial and must be taken into consideration when manufacturing or purchasing gloves. Today's customers are becoming more sophisticated in their expectations, and manufacturers are taking note. By listening to the voice of the customer and embracing new materials, blends, and branded fabrics, manufacturers are able to better meet customer needs while differentiating their products in the marketplace.

And by producing gloves that better meet the specific needs of the environment in which they are being used, glove manufacturers are helping today's employers ensure their employees are protected and their businesses remain successful. Safety regulations are met, which decreases the risk of not only personal injury, but also financial injury for the company, and employees enjoy a less stressful work environment. It's a perfect fit for all.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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