Meeting the Needs of Next-Generation Workers

Their needs vary by age and also by personal preferences.

When we consider the next generation of plant workers, we typically think of younger workers who may be relatively new to the job market. But according to The Center for Aging and Work at Boston College, the next generation of workers will likely combine younger and older employees because four of every five baby boomers plan to work past the "normal retirement" age — either because they want to or will need the extra income.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 40 million people will enter the workforce, 25 million will leave, and 109 million will remain over the next decade. The workforce will be comprised of a rising number of workers under 25 and over 45, with a declining number of middle-age employees. This combination of younger and older workers will make it imperative for companies to provide individuals with hand protection that meets their specific job and age-related needs.

Protection
Plant workers are producing more than ever. The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reported American manufacturing output was 16 percent higher in 2010 than a decade earlier, despite the Great Recession and the fact that some manufacturing industries virtually disappeared. When this statistic is combined with the sharp drop in employment, BEA's numbers imply that manufacturing productivity rose an astonishing 74 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to a recent article in Washington Monthly.

With productivity expectations likely to continue to grow, workers of all ages must be able to perform their jobs as safely, quickly, and accurately as possible. Their performance hinges, in part, on having the right gloves and the appropriate level of protection for their jobs.

Employee protection and confidence are closely linked to productivity, with companies incurring major costs – and significant productivity losses – when workers suffer injuries. Even minor wounds will require workers to leave the line and visit the company nurse for treatment. Companies that adequately protect workers from cuts, burns, punctures, and other types of injuries decrease their medical and indemnity costs. They also boost worker confidence and productivity.

Comfort
Research confirms that workers believe comfort is as important in their work gloves as the products' protective qualities. Glove manufacturers may design products that provide the highest level of cut or chemical protection possible. If the gloves fail to ensure a sufficient level of comfort, however, workers will refuse to wear them for extended periods.

Workers often remove gloves or make adjustments (such as cutting off the glove fingers or clipping the wrist) when products feel uncomfortable or restrict their movements. They also may try to substitute other products for gloves that lack comfort.

A major chemical company discovered employees were bringing their own gloves to work because they felt the gloves the company provided did not provide sufficient comfort. Workers chose a popular glove brand that was available at retail outlets and through distribution. The product was recognized for its comfort and attractive styling, which made it especially appealing. The problem was the gloves did not offer the chemical resistance required, which resulted in injury.

Many factors affect worker comfort and performance, including dexterity, tactility, and grip. Features that enhance dexterity and tactility allow the hands and fingers to move freely and increase touch sensation in the fingertips. Gloves that promote dexterity and tactile sensitivity are especially beneficial to workers who must handle small pieces in assembly and packaging operations.

Grip is a comfort factor because workers must apply more force if their gloves do not allow them to grasp objects securely. This added force results in cramping and fatigue and can cause repetitive motion injuries (RMIs), such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis.

Ergonomic Design
Various studies indicate ergonomically designed gloves can help reduce repetitive motion injuries and musculoskeletal disorders, especially in older workers. Workers accustomed to ergonomically designed sports apparel constructed with breathable, lightweight materials want these same features in their hand protection.

Gloves should be contoured to the shape of the hand and provide the support needed for specific tasks. They also should fit well, because gloves that are too small can restrict movement and blood flow and lead to cramping, fatigue, and perspiration. Conversely, gloves that are large and bulky can interfere with hand movement, may become caught in machinery, or could even fall off. Proper fit particularly benefits workers who suffer from arthritis.

Appearance
Workers may compare their work gloves to sports apparel in which appearance and design are paramount. They may demand more form-fitting gloves with bright colors and accents, patterns, and textures.

Color is important, with workers expressing definite preferences. In research conducted among male and female workers in 22 countries to determine their color priorities, blue was the overwhelming choice, with men choosing green as their second-favorite color and women naming purple as their second preference.

Glove Manufacturers' Response
Glove manufacturers constantly strive to identify worker needs and desires within the changing workplace. For some manufacturers, this means traveling to plant sites to observe individuals at work in various environments and to gain their feedback about the hazards they face, their preferences, and on-the-job challenges.

This focus on worker needs has resulted in the use of engineered yarns to increase work gloves’ functionality and comfort. Some of these allow gloves to be ultra lightweight and offer tremendous strength and protection against cuts. They are also breathable and provide workers’ dexterity and tactility, similar to what they would experience if they worked barehanded.

Advancements in knitting technology allow manufacturers to vary the density and stitching tension in areas where workers need more room, such as the knuckles and the back of the hand. Varied stitching releases tension in high-stress zones and provides an ergonomic fit, which reduces hand fatigue and the likelihood of RMIs. Design techniques that shape gloves to the contours of the fingers and hand promote a natural fit for greater comfort.

Engineered coatings and roughened surfaces in the palm and fingertips boost grip and increase sensitivity in the fingertips. Fabrics that wick moisture away keep the hands dry and comfortable and ensure greater dexterity and tactile sensitivity, which helps to reduce the likelihood of dropped parts.

Summary
Just as athletes benefit from sports apparel that makes them run faster and jump higher, plant workers will benefit from work gloves that boost their confidence and performance. The next generation of workers — regardless of their age — will require gloves that provide outstanding protection and exceptional comfort.

Workers will continue to desire form-fitting gloves that offer a stylish, attractive appearance. Branded glove manufacturers will respond to worker demands with thinner, functionally superior gloves that are comfortable enough for workers to wear throughout their shifts. These products will protect against a wide range of hazards and incorporate colors and designs that increase their visual appeal.

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

About the Author

Laura Proctor serves as Director, Customer Marketing—Industrial, for North America at Ansell Protective Products Inc. She has more than 20 years of product management and marketing experience in various industries including automotive, plastics, and white/durable goods. For more information about hand protection for the next generation of workers, visit www.ansellpro.com or call 800.800.0444.

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