The market for impact gloves has expanded dramatically in recent years, driven in part by advances in technology and the range of materials available. (D30 photo)

Goal Zero: Reducing Injuries Through Advances in Hand Protection

Companies are turning workplace safety into a personal matter. Bringing innovative materials science to PPE is a priority for end users and brands alike.

There is increasing recognition of emotional factors in the prevention of workplace injuries. Manufacturers and construction and oil companies are campaigning with their teams to bring personal commitment back into safety targets by engaging them to individually watch out for themselves and others, set an example inside and outside production facilities, and call out unsafe behavior, and they are fundamentally incorporating safety as part of company culture.

To this aim, the PPE companies make available to their workers can be a tangible demonstration of a company's commitment to worker safety.

The Implications for PPE Brands
The demand on PPE brands is shifting as a result. For PPE brands, promoting safety means innovating to encourage adoption above and beyond minimum acceptable performance. In the realm of hand protection, this translates into demand for premium products, as well as product comfort and brand equity.

If the user recognizes the PPE brand, has a positive experience with it, and trusts it as reliable and consistent, then barriers to adoption are reduced. From the buyer's perspective, the PPE brand is fulfilling its part of the workplace safety deal.

The Role of Innovation in Materials Science
The latest high-performance materials used in industrial workwear and PPE offer better chemical, mechanical, impact, and thermal protection, as well as greater comfort and ergonomic design. This in turn can boost compliance, productivity, and performance because workers are more likely to use the PPE, are less restricted, have more flexible movement, and tend to get less tired.

"Protective apparel can sometimes be quite uncomfortable to wear, and the reality is that comfort equals compliance for industrial end users," explained Rodney Taylor, global sales and marketing manager for industrial PPE at D3O. "Material providers and brands are trying to provide products that are more comfortable without sacrificing the performance they're intended to offer."

Bringing innovative materials science to PPE is therefore a priority for end users and brands. With gloves, this ranges from new liquid repellent treatments to prevent oils and liquids getting inside and keep hands clean and dry, to advanced materials that can be applied to the palm and finger pads to maintain grip even in oily conditions, to advanced cut-resistant yarns to protect workers from cut and slash hazards without adding bulk.

In the PPE sector, one of the most significant developments has been the evolution of fire-retardant fabrics. These range from applied chemical treatments to protect fibers from fire to the development of materials such as DuPont™ Nomex®, where flame resistance is built into the chemical structure.

Similar industry-changing developments include DuPont™ Kevlar® and Twaron, which were developed commercially in the 1970s and combine greater strength with lighter weight as well as heat resistance, and waterproof but breathable materials, such as GORE-TEX (invented in 1969), which consists of stretched polytetrafluoroethylene.

Mixing Increased Hand Protection with PPE Production Agility
One notable element used in impact protection is PVC plastisol (TPR), a generic term that can encompass many different materials. "Up until this point, the only way to modify the properties of the TPR was either by changing the plasticizer or changing the amount of plasticizer to make the material harder or softer," said Dr. Norman Keane, chief technology officer at D3O. "But this didn't fundamentally change the character of the TPR."

D3O used its materials science knowhow to develop a new liquid additive that blends easily with PVC plastisol to provide better shock absorption properties. "That's the breakthrough," Keane said. "We;ve developed a synergistic blend that gives us a 30 percent improvement in protection. Factory owners don’t have to change the fundamental ways in which they process TPR; they can get a 30 percent improvement in the protection properties of TPR but still run it on the same equipment around the world."

As the working environment continues to evolve, the challenge for material scientists and PPE manufacturers will be to meet the demands of tomorrow's PPE users for greater comfort, style, performance, and productivity, while still providing maximum protection.

If wearable tech delivers ever-more-accurate information about the nature of the physical risks workers face, PPE providers will have to respond more quickly to changing demands.

Leveraging Other Industries to Drive Compliance
In PPE, two of the key influential sectors are sports and the military. "There are lots of crossovers with sports," said Keane. "As sports fabrics have gotten lighter, products such as industrial gloves have also gotten lighter and more flexible. It's about ergonomics, comfort, and performance; the way things fit is very important."

There is also the sports fashion element. "Workers want to look good," he said, "so they tend to like a sports look for safety glasses, gloves, or footwear. They don't want a big, old, clunky leather boot, but perhaps something that looks more like an athletic shoe but with high protection. Toe protection is there, but it might now be a composite, so it's lighter and more flexible."

There is also a long history of transferring military protection technologies to industrial safety. DuPont™ Kevlar® is a good example. Although the product came out of experiments to produce lightweight and durable vehicle tires, its biggest commercial application came initially in the military for body armor, such as bulletproof vests, helmets, and other protection. It has since been used widely in industrial PPE, as well as in high-performance sporting equipment and consumer products such as cell phones.

Cutting Through the Noise
Within hand protection in the last two years, there has been an explosion of gloves with dorsal TPR protection. While brands market performance claims, to date there has been no commonly agreed performance standard or test method in North America for dorsal (back-of-hand) impact protection. As a result, the market for impact gloves has expanded dramatically in recent years, driven in part by advances in technology and the range of materials available. However, those developments have caused some misunderstanding and confusion for buyers.

To take one example, a wide range of materials used in gloves claim to provide impact protection, many of which come under the umbrella term TPR. Yet the production methods are varied, meaning a wide range of gloves may all be labeled TPR but have very different performance attributes.

The absence of an objective performance standard creates a serious challenge for the professionals responsible for selecting appropriate PPE for industrial workers. With so many different products on the market, how do they evaluate and assess the quality of the impact protection offered?

The main consequence of the lack of any useful "measuring stick" for those gloves is to make it more difficult for decision makers to choose the right protection for their workforces in a cost-effective way. At best, this results in market confusion; at worst, it can result in under- or over-specification of gloves, incurring unnecessary expense for companies or leaving workers vulnerable to injury.

There is a hand protection standard in North America. However, the existing ANSI/ISEA 105-2016, American National Standard for Hand Protection Classification, focuses on cut, abrasion, tear, and puncture performance and does not address the threat from impact.

In an industry first, ISEA is in development of a new voluntary standard to address this and complement the existing hand protection standard: ANSI/ISEA 138, American national standard for performance and classification for impact resistant hand protection. This standard is specifically designed for industrial gloves, and its levels will provide glove buyers with clarity and confidence in their choice. The closest equivalent standard in Europe, EN 388: 2016 Protective gloves against mechanical risks, covers the knuckles—ANSI/ISEA 138 will go further to include fingers. This promises to be a game changer for the oil and gas sector, for example, with fingers remaining the most vulnerable part of the body in terms of both lost time and recordable injuries.1

For occupational health and safety professionals in all sectors where safety is a number one priority, the new standard will provide a more complete framework by which they can select the glove or suite of gloves best suited to their people and processes. Compliance with the standard in achieving an acceptable level of performance will help reduce workplace injuries and provide cost savings, providing specifiers with the confidence to then consider additional factors, such as user preference and how comfortable the glove is to wear and work in.

Reference
1. 2016 figures collected through the International Association of Drilling Contractors

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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