Addressing hand protection may seem like a simple issue. Just give your workers a pair of gloves and tell them to wear them … right? Wrong. Selecting the right type of hand protection can be quite vexing. You might need to supply gloves that are more versatile or select different gloves for certain purposes.
Hand injuries account for more than 10% of emergency room visits in the United States, according to Medline, a comprehensive source of life sciences and biomedical bibliographic information. This statistic alone should motivate employers to require consistent, proper hand protection. Between October 2006 and September 2007, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) issued 225 violations for noncompliance with the rules for hand protection. These violations totaled more than $96,000 in fines. This does not include the costs associated with fines against general personal protective equipment (PPE) rules or other related violations that are likely to be issued.
So which glove can protect you from every chemical? There are some universal gloves that might protect against virtually any chemical exposure you could encounter, but they are expensive and usually are uncomfortable. The best answer is to select the correct gloves for the specific exposures you might encounter. Below are some considerations for choosing the right gloves.
Disposable or reusable – Is your workforce permanent or transient? Do you have washing facilities available? What about storage? Disposable gloves are inherently less durable, but if the tasks are of limited duration, they might make more sense. If you have long and consistent exposures, a reusable glove might be your best choice.
Grip – Selecting a glove that has enough dexterity and grip is vital. If you are handling large, bulky items, grip becomes less of an issue. If you are dealing with small parts, performing intricate tasks or working in cold or wet environments, grip is essential. Make sure the polymers used in gripping gloves are tested in the environment in which you are going to work. Some might be good for dry applications but not for wet. Some might melt in high temperatures or become rigid in the cold. These answers are found in the product specifications, which can be obtained from the glove manufacturer.
Cutting/puncture/abrasion – The classic leather work glove will normally satisfy most physical protection needs on a worksite. Knowing what types of hazards are present will help in choosing the best work glove. If slicing is a concern, then a metal thread or Kevlar-type glove will be best. If abrasion or blistering is the concern, then a common cotton-type glove might suffice. Keep in mind that the glove material must satisfy the need, and make your choice based on product specifications, not just the cost. Some of the more expensive, top-grain leathers are actually less durable than the lower-cost, suede-leather styles.
Heat resistance/flame protection – Heat and fire protection are two very different things. Just because a glove will not burn under normal use does not mean that it will insulate your hand from high temperatures. If you are handling hot surfaces, then heat resistance is most important. If the glove will be exposed to open flames or very high temperatures, then flame resistance and heat resistance are vital.
There are very few “generic” answers to selecting gloves to protect you from chemicals. The most versatile rule is “like material dissolves like material.” If you are working with chlorine-based chemicals, do not select a polyvinyl chloride glove. If you are dealing with alcohols, do not select a polyvinyl alcohol material for protection. So which material should you select? First and foremost, review the product’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). This will tell you what chemicals are in the product and will recommend an appropriate glove for protection. From there, you can visit the glove supplier's Web site and look for items that match the MSDS' recommendation.
Permeability — Every glove has a specific permeability for every substance. No glove is 100% chemical-proof for an indefinite period. In general, the higher the chemical resistance, the higher the cost and the bulkier the material will be. There is no point in overprotection. You should choose the right glove for the right use. That is not to say that a safety factor would not be prudent, but simply selecting the highest level of protection is neither wise nor safe.
The table below provides some general guidelines for hand-protection materials. Use this as a starting point, and then select the type of glove material that provides the best protection for all anticipated exposures.
Once you have made some basic decisions, it is time to choose. There are many resources available to assist you in selecting the perfect glove. A simple search engine query using “hand protection” leads to hundreds of suppliers, each with their own glove selection guide. You just need to know the conditions your employees might encounter. Review the references below to ensure you are fully prepared to make the best decisions when protecting your workers.
OSHA published its final rule on employer payment of PPE on Nov. 15, 2007. This rule applies to all forms of PPE with some special exceptions. Hand protection is just one of the issues covered under this new ruling.
For additional information on this and other occupational health and safety topics, or to access a list of industrial hygiene consultants, visit the American Industrial Hygiene Association.
John Glass has more than 20 years of experience as an environmental health consultant. He has consulted on toxic exposures, risk management and indoor air quality. He is the past president of the N.J. Industrial Hygiene association and past chair of the AIHA Construction Committee. In addition, he has provided litigation support in several areas, including mold, asbestos, IAQ and confined space entry.