Taking a More Holistic Approach to Hand Protection

Taking a More Holistic Approach to Hand Protection

Following a global Pandemic, the time is now to improve your approach to PPE selection.

For health and safety professionals, effective hand protection begins long before a worker slides their hands in a single pair of gloves. Organizations must consider how to provide workers with the best possible equipment to protect themselves as hand injuries consistently rank among the most common preventable injuries in the workplace, and each injury can cost thousands of dollars and a significant amount of lost workdays.1 

Hand protection has long been a key consideration for employers and their employees across many industries, but in recent years, the perspective on hand protection has been transformed—perhaps permanently—by the Covid-19 pandemic. As challenging as it was for organizations to adapt hand protection protocols during the most severe phases of the pandemic, the current phase in which many economies and businesses have reopened presents a new set of hurdles—with more people returning to work and ever-changing regulatory and industry guidance on best practices. 

Many articles on hand protection focus on educating readers on glove types, processes, policies and culture—all of which are vital to understand when establishing an effective workplace safety program. This piece, however, will apply a broader lens to hand protection, detailing how:  

  • to ensure reliable and steady access to hand protection products amid supply chain uncertainties; 
  • to discern the proper type of glove required for the each workplace and function; 
  • businesses can and should drastically mitigate the environmental impact of PPE waste; and 
  • buyers can properly discern reliable PPE manufacturers from the multitude of PPE makers that have popped up during the pandemic to capitalize on higher demand and prices.  

Reduce Reliance on Overseas PPE Suppliers 

As basic as it sounds, you can’t provide hand protection to workers if you can’t get your hands on PPE gloves. Supply chain disruptions that arose at the onset of the pandemic aimed a spotlight on the United States’ reliance on PPE sourced from Asia. The U.S. International Trade Commission estimates that 80 to 90 percent of U.S. PPE demand pre-pandemic was filled by imports, largely from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and other Asian countries. And while tracking was inexact, it is estimated that less than half of all PPE was manufactured in North America. 

Reducing your reliance on overseas PPE glove suppliers is not an overnight process, but it is a necessary one to avoid history repeating itself with supply chain disruptions, price gouging and the proliferation of substandard/counterfeit products. Ensuring a more resilient supply of PPE starts with understanding market trends and options. And that starts here at home; legislation extending The Berry Amendment to PPE, as well as the bipartisan Make PPE in America Act signed into law by President Biden last year as part of the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act have unlocked more domestic PPE supplier opportunities. 

Shifting to domestic PPE suppliers can deliver enhanced quality assurance, better proximity for visiting factories and testing sample product and expedited delivery times. Be sure to remain vigilant in evaluating domestic PPE options as dozens of opportunists popped up almost overnight insinuating they either have the on-shore capability or can rapidly build the capacity to manufacture and deliver billions of gloves in a matter of months.  

Choose the Right Glove for the Job 

Though it is easier now for businesses to acquire PPE, providing workers with a supply of general purpose gloves is often inadequate. When the type of glove used for hand protection is an afterthought, employees can end up stuck with PPE that impedes their comfort and dexterity, or worse, leaves them vulnerable to injury or illness. That is why for employers in any industry, it’s critical to determine what the proper protection needs are for specific tasks. 

When buying PPE for industrial workers, one glove does not fit all and employers must consider the risks inherent to each job. Employees who may come into contact with hazardous or corrosive substances should be equipped with chemical-resistant gloves made from resistant materials. This applies to places where chemicals are manufactured, but can also be necessary for mechanics and oil and gas workers. 

Workers using sharp implements or in proximity to blades should use cut-resistant gloves, which can prevent painful lacerations and expensive medical treatment. For workers handling heavy materials or machinery, impact protection gloves dissipate the shock energy of an impact to protect workers’ fingers and knuckles—the most fragile parts of the hand.  

The same holds true for situations where workers will handle materials with extreme temperatures—both cold and heat can affect the protection provided by general purpose gloves and should be accounted for when ordering. Factoring the specific duties and risks of each task into a hand protection plan keeps workers safe and keeps production moving. 

Prioritize Environmental Impact  

Although organizations following safety regulations and discarding PPE after use improves worker safety and workplace hygiene, it is important to acknowledge that disposing of gloves does contribute to global PPE waste. According to a WHO report, approximately 87,000 tons of PPE waste were generated between March 2020 and November 2021. This surge in waste created during the pandemic has challenged political and industry leaders to rethink approaches to PPE waste and reduce the environmental impact of public health responses beyond Covid-19.  

To address this global problem, manufacturers have dedicated research and development efforts to cultivate new biodegradable materials that can completely transform the life cycle of disposable gloves. Some manufacturers have ramped up production on existing biodegradable formulations, while others are currently developing new materials, spurred on by the recent focus on renewability. 

These product innovations are more than simple changes to packaging—they include newer formulations of nitrile with ingredients that help advance the biodegradation process. This means that discarded gloves in biologically active landfills can break down up to 82 percent in just over a year, whereas traditional nitrile will only be 1.9 percent biodegraded over the same time span. That level of improvement makes a drastic difference for PPE that would otherwise spend years in landfills. 

Finally, look for gloves with GreenCircle certification, which demonstrates a manufacturer’s sustainability efforts. GreenCircle Certified is an internationally recognized third-party certification entity whose thorough evaluation process provides independent verification that sustainability claims related to an organization’s products and operations are honest, valid and verified.  

Avoid Substandard or Counterfeit PPE 

At the height of the pandemic, many buyers were burned by illegitimate operators at a time when proven, quality PPE was hard to come by. Fly-by-night companies seized on the high demand and low supply for PPE during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, offering gloves from factories with spurious credentials or falsified lab reports. Some buyers ordered from unknown suppliers out of desperation, only to receive gloves that were substandard or secondhand—if they received products at all. 

While the PPE market has stabilized in the past year, buyers ordering from unknown suppliers still run the risk of receiving inferior products that could jeopardize worker safety. For that reason, it is critical to partner with trusted providers and properly vet any new PPE manufacturers. 

To identify a reputable manufacturer, buyers should look for verifiable credentials from third parties, as well as an established history of delivering quality products. It is often easier to properly vet manufacturers based in the United States as buyers have more familiarity with American quality and safety regulations. Domestic manufacturers also provide the benefit of immediacy, as American buyers can make onsite visits to facilities to test out gloves and assess quality in person. Any organization that has received second-rate gloves after placing a large order with an untested supplier can vouch for the importance of this kind of due diligence. 

The past two years have been tumultuous, with businesses often putting hand protection on the back burner to focus attention on other critical developments. Now that PPE supply issues have eased somewhat, the timing is optimal to apply this broader perspective to hand protection that takes into account glove sourcing, protection type, environmental impact and product quality. By doing so, businesses across industries—medical, food service, manufacturing, custodial, scientific or otherwise—can be prepared for future pandemics, new phases of the current pandemic, as well as the more traditional risks and hazards that emerge every day. 

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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