It's an age-old challenge for the glove manufacturing industry: making gloves that fully protect workers from potential hazards while not interfering with the work itself. Today, manufacturers are racing to create thinner, lighter, stronger and sleeker gloves that still stand up to on-the-job threats, from cuts and chemicals to vibration and slippery surfaces.
To do this, manufacturers must take advantage of the latest technological advances in the industry. They develop new materials, create layer combinations, experiment with coatings, develop new testing techniques — you name it, and the industry is trying to improve it. Occupational Hazards spoke to glove manufacturers to learn what they are doing to make sure workers — and their ten digits — are protected.
Putting an End to Vibration
When workers use jackhammers, sanders, grinders or other vibrating tools, they risk developing hand-arm vibration syndrome, a painful and disabling condition that causes pain, numbness and tingling in the hands or arms. Workers need a glove that can protect them from vibration without being so thick it impedes their work.
Ergodyne found a solution with its patented polymer Nu2O2, which is used in the company's line of ANSI-compliant anti-vibration gloves. The glove consists of neoprene and two layers of urethane, one of which is impregnated with oxygen bubbles. Ergodyne President and CEO Tom Votel likens it to a three-layer cake.
“The result is a glove that does not fit like a catcher's mitt,” he explains. “It is thicker, but you are talking about workers who are exposed to really, really extreme vibration. These are guys using jack hammers, chippers, grinders or sanders all day long, so their exposure is significant. This provides a really nice protective solution for that worker, but is also reasonably dexterous.”
Of course, to avoid cumbersome gloves, you could always opt for air. The Air Glove line from Impacto contains a bladder of air inside the glove to attenuate and absorb vibration. Individual air chambers ensure that even if one section is punctured, the rest of the glove maintains its anti-vibration qualities.
“Instead of using thick gel or a thick foam pad, which can make gloves very bulky or heavy, we have a self-contained bladder of air within the glove,” says Eric Lehtinen, Impacto executive vice president. “It's a network of individual air pockets that fit over the palm, fingers and thumb of the hand, which creates a barrier of air between your hand and the tool.”
Lehtinen says using thick gel or foam can make the glove heavy and hot, which can have a negative impact on worker safety. “One of the biggest complaints I get from workers who have to wear anti-vibration gloves is that they're very bulky and they're thick,” he says. “The advantage that the air glove has is that because it's air, it's a very light-feeling glove and doesn't have a lot of weight to it, but still protects against the vibration.”
In the cut protection arena, manufacturers have a lot to work with, including cut-resistant materials and yarn, yarn-wrapping techniques and more. But for many manufacturers, it appears Kevlar remains the synthetic fiber of choice for cut protection.
“Within the North American market, Kevlar still represents the lion's share of cut-resistance,” says Larry Garner, chief marketing officer for MCR safety. He adds that the industry is creating “a wealth of progression of different types of fabrics, including much more cut- and abrasion-resistant properties” to develop even better gloves.
Dave Gelpke, regional manager at HexArmor, a manufacturer of high-level puncture- and cut-resistant gloves, says steel companies, oil companies and plywood facilities turn to his company for solutions in high-risk environments. One oil company, for example, used HexAmor gloves to protect workers who handle wire ropes.
“Their workers are no longer getting poked in the hand by what they call wickers, which are strands of wire that break through and have traditionally poked through any other glove that they had,” Gelpke explains.
In HexArmor's new Level Six 9000 series, small guard plates made from a mineral-reinforced polymer are applied to a cut-resistant shell constructed of proprietary fabric. This creates a glove that combines cut resistance and dexterity.
“What we're coming up with is the highest level of dexterity, comfort, cut resistance and puncture resistance all in one glove,” Gelpke says.
“One must take into consideration that the chemicals gloves are being subjected to are to a degree very broad ranging,” says Michael Zedalis, Ph.D., senior vice president of technology at Ansell Healthcare. “The world of chemicals is really quite complex. But all the principle raw material manufacturers are making advances in raw materials and combinations thereof to improve chemical resistance.”
Ansell approaches chemical resistance improvements in part by developing better chemical permeation testing, particularly in dynamic permeation. This refers to how a glove performs after it has been worn — when it becomes stretched or creased after workers use it to handle and grip parts.
“Any time you add energy to a glove, you impact the chemical permeation resistance of that glove. That's just an inherent material issue,” Zedalis says. By better mimicking the work environment and determining exactly what condition the gloves are in while workers are using them, manufacturers can ensure that the gloves will offer protection under realistic work circumstances.
Zedalis also points out that as materials become more sophisticated, manufacturers have more options. For example, Ansell's Sol-Vex brand of gloves has been on the market for more than 30 years. During that time, the glove has improved due to developments in the product's base material of nitrile-butadiene rubber. Creating softer, more pliable nitrile results in gloves that are more comfortable to wear.
And with technological advances making gloves with material that is more chemically resistant, it therefore is possible to adjust the glove. “You can make it thinner, and provide the same degree of chemical resistance, or make it the same thickness and get enhanced performance,” Zedalis says.
Carmen Castro, marketing manager of MAPA Professional, says consumers would love to find the solution to various hazards in a single product. “They want one glove that just does it all, basically,” she says. “That's not always possible.”
Even if a magic all-hazard glove doesn't exist, MAPA strives to protect workers in more than one way and help them avoid the hassle and discomfort of double gloving. The company's new Kronit-Proof 395 has an exterior cut-resistant layer with a nitrile chemical-resistant layer in the middle and an inner knit layer for comfort.
“Most of the gloves out there have the cut liner in the middle layer, with the polymer on top,” she says. “But if you cut the polymer, it's no longer liquid resistant.”
MAPA's design, meanwhile, offers workers a cut-resistant glove that continues protecting against chemicals even if it has been cut. The Kronit-Proof 395 also offers slip resistance and is ideal for metal fabrication workers who must pick up oily, greasy shivers of metal scrap.
The Zorb-It Ultimate glove from Best Glove also serves a dual purpose, offering both cut protection and slip resistance. Technical Product Specialist Don Groce calls the Zorb-It a hybrid glove that includes a cut-resistant Kevlar shell with coating that not only adds to the cut resistance, but also is oil absorptive.
“It absorbs oil for better grip and also adds more cut resistance to the Kevlar liner,” he explains. “We call this a hybrid because it's both for slip resistance and cut resistance.” The glove, Groce says, especially applies to workers who need both cut protection and a secure grip in oily conditions, such as sheet metal handling workers.
Grip and Slip
The dual protection of the Zorb-It glove demonstrates that in addition to feeling comfortable and being protected, workers must be able to grip with confidence. This can be accomplished with special treads and selecting the material that matches the application.
MAPA, for example, developed a “Z” pattern that channels liquids away from the glove surface to provide better grip with nitrile. From a grip standpoint, Castro says MAPA favors polyurethane because it has a good grip in slippery applications.
Votel adds that textured PVC has a nice gripping quality as well as some abrasion resistance. Ergodyne also offers silicone gloves with a diamond tread pattern to provide ultimate slip resistance, but Votel points out this type of glove isn't appropriate in all applications.
“If you want maximum slip resistance, silicone tends to be a very good material for that purpose,” he says. “But in an environment where there's much more abrasion and its rougher, you probably want to step up to some kind of textured PVC.”
Wet versus dry environments also determine which glove material is best. “Textured PVC is actually really good in a wetter environment,” Votel explains, “whereas silicone gets slippery in wet environments.”
When it comes to grip, glove manufacturers are looking beyond just the outer glove surface. The inside of a glove affects performance, too. “Your hand sweats naturally in a glove, so we're looking at better means at managing perspiration,” Zedalis says. Ansell therefore is developing thin, absorptive coatings applied to the inner surface to prevent hands from becoming too slippery inside the glove.
Free to Move
While protection always is the first concern, the amount of dexterity afforded by a glove can affect a worker's productivity, happiness and safety.
“The trends are definitely toward gloves that offer more dexterity,” says Groce. “Sometimes, there's a trade off between offering dexterity and still having the same good qualities as far as cut resistance, abrasion resistance or chemical resistance. All those are inversely proportionate to the thickness, so the thinner the glove, the more you sacrifice those things.”
But that doesn't mean it's pointless to ask for both dexterity and protection. Many manufacturers are finding solutions to this problem. “There are ways to engineer in improved dexterity,” says Zedalis. “It comes about by controlling the thickness of the glove and by formulating softer and more pliable gloves themselves.”
For example, Ansell's patented knitting technology, knitted variable stitch design (KVSD), adjusts the knit tension in the finger, knuckle and creasing points on a glove to make it easier for a wearer to bend his or her fingers and hand. Zedalis also points to other improvements in glove manufacturing, such as coating only the palm or fingers instead of the entire glove to improve flexibility and dexterity.
Votel adds that at Ergodyne, they look at the “human factor” issue of hand protection to provide workers with high dexterity, high function and specific protection depending on their jobs. This, he says, can lead to better compliance and effectiveness because the worker is more likely to wear the gloves.
“I think the best glove out there is going to provide the maximum protection for that worker but also provide high dexterity,” Votel says. “A lot of the synthetics that we're using are quite flexible and fit really nice and secure around the hand, so they provide a really secure fit.”
“I think we're becoming more safety sophisticated as a country,” considers MCR's Garner. “More progressive-thinking employers recognize that if they want to differentiate themselves and keep their employees, they need to make certain that they provide the latest, greatest types of equipment.”
That means offering the most comfortable, protective gloves possible — and for manufacturers to take advantage of every technological development they can get their hands on.