Disposable Gloves: Hands-On Protection Against Terror

Facing the new threat of anthrax in the mail, the U.S. Postal Service and other organizations create an unprecedented demand for disposable gloves to protect employees.

Since Sept. 11, there has been a new appreciation for the value of disposable gloves. While always popular with women washing dishes prior to the increased use of automatic dishwashers, about the only places disposable gloves found a home outside the home through the mid-1980s were in medical facilities, where they were used to protect medical personnel during medical procedures, and in certain industrial settings, where they provided protection against chemicals and solvents.

"There was limited use in the postal service, where some workers wore cut-resistant gloves when sorting mail to protect against paper cuts," says Bill Alico, vice president - sales and marketing, of Perfect Fit Glove Co. in Buffalo, N.Y.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out with its HIV guidelines in 1987, use of disposables increased significantly, especially among dental professionals. "This is where we saw the first really big increase in demand for disposables," says Craig Wagner, director of global sales and marketing for Best Manufacturing Co. in Menlo, Ga., and a member of the board of directors of the National Industrial Glove Distributors Association (NIGDA). Five years later, when OSHA released its bloodborne pathogen standard, use of disposables increased even more significantly.

New Demand

Beginning in September, as concern for anthrax exposure spread, demand for disposables skyrocketed. "This led to a whole new base of customers who had never worn gloves before, such as mail sorters and carriers," Alico reports. Says one glove distributor's marketing director, who requested anonymity: "We started getting calls in the middle of the night from the FBI, the New York City Transit Authority, the New York City Fire Department, Con Edison and Verizon."

The biggest customer, of course, was the U.S. Postal Service, which, in a one-month period, ordered 45 million pair of ambidextrous, hypoallergenic, nitrile gloves. "We focused our attention on vendors that we felt could provide the quality and quantity we needed in the time frame that we needed," explains Gerry Kreienkamp, media relations representative.

"The postal service really had to scramble," Best's Wagner recalls. "It was like a war room, trying to find product as quickly as possible in the first couple of days." Due to the astronomical demand, according to Wagner, the initial philosophy at the postal service was "anything is better than nothing."

"As such, a lot of junk hit the marketplace relatively quickly," he says. "When concerns over the quality of some of the Asian gloves became known, though, the postal service realized that it couldn't take junk. It needed something that would work. A nitrile glove with a hole in it doesn't do you any good." Within a week, according to Wagner, the postal service focused more clearly on quality.

Latex or Nitrile?

Latex (natural rubber) gloves were the disposable glove of choice for decades, primarily because of their ease of use and inexpensive price tag. They have been popular in the food industry, as well as in the medical profession because of their ability to protect against bloodborne pathogens. They have not been used as frequently in mainstream industry, though, because they have poor chemical-resistance performance.

Probably the most common concern about latex, however, is the potential for allergic reaction. OSHA's estimates of people allergic to latex range from 6 percent to 17 percent. The majority of people with allergic reaction suffer from contact dermatitis, a simple, nonthreatening irritant. Continued exposure, however, can lead to breaks in the skin, causing other problems. A second type of allergic reaction can occur with latex gloves manufactured with certain chemicals. Reactions here can include rashes, blistering and itching. The most serious type of allergic reaction, which occurs in only about 1 percent of the cases, can compromise the body's immune system. It is most common among people who are already allergic to things like penicillin, bee stings, etc. "Because of the possibility of allergic reactions, it has been a standard disclaimer in our industry for the last 20 years that if you develop a rash from latex gloves or are otherwise allergic, you should stop wearing them," says Larry Garner, president of Memphis Glove Co. in Memphis, Tenn.

As such, nitrile gloves are the glove of choice these days in most organizations that need chemical resistance and also appreciate a relatively inexpensive price tag. "Over the years, as more and more people have come to understand the possible allergy problems associated with latex, nitrile gloves have become very popular," states Fred Seebode, manager of development for North Safety Products, Charleston, S.C. "Even though only a small percentage of people suffer from latex allergic reactions, the increase in advertising and other sales promotions for nitrile has helped promote its popularity."

Garner agrees. "Powder-free nitrile disposables became the selection of choice by almost everyone in recent months. There has been a huge demand for these."

Julie Copeland, vice president of sales for Arbill Glove & Safety in Philadelphia, adds: "The shift away from latex to nitrile became even more apparent after 9/11. Everyone began seeing pictures of the blue and purple nitrile gloves and focused their attention on them. The postal service, in fact, specified nitrile, because it didn't want to have to deal with the potential problems associated with latex. In addition, there wasn't any proof at the time that latex could protect against anthrax."

Response

Given the huge spike in demand, how were glove manufacturers and distributors able to respond? For the most part, response was excellent, in large part because of an existing sag in the economy at the time. "Prior to 9/11, the industry as a whole tended to have an overcapacity of gloves," Perfect Fit's Alico explains. "In August, for example, you could call almost any glove company and get as many disposable gloves as you needed."

Still, the demand placed significant pressures on the industry. As a distributor, for example, Arbill Glove & Safety found itself being stretched. "We were putting in long hours, trying to source product from our manufacturers and get it out to our customers," Copeland says. One challenge for the company was that, despite the emergency demand from new customers like the postal service, it remained committed to its existing customer base. "We didn't want to deplete our inventory to the level where our regular customers would run out of gloves," she explains. "As such, we had to rely on noncustomer inventory to meet the needs of the postal service and other new customers."

Memphis Glove manufactures some of its many types of work gloves and imports the remainder. All of the disposables are imported. "With the economy being somewhat stagnant at the time, we and our suppliers had larger-than-usual inventories, so we were able to begin to meet demand immediately," Garner says. "We then continued to increase our inventory levels by asking our manufacturers to increase their manufacturing levels."

One company that experienced less of a challenge in meeting demand was Best Manufacturing. "We had some existing supply, but we went through this very quickly," Wagner says. "However, since we manufacture all of our gloves domestically, we were able to increase capacity and delivery relatively quickly."

Wagner believes that the company's quality also helped. "Since we make our products in the U.S., we have documentation and traceability," he states. "We were able to provide customers with flow charts from raw materials, which are also manufactured in the U.S., all the way through to the final product." Many of the imported gloves, according to Wagner, lacked sufficient documentation and traceability.

According to Copeland, though, the Food and Drug Administration had begun to strengthen its examination policy of imported goods prior to Sept. 11. "Since the standards had recently become a lot stricter, there were fewer imperfections in imported exam-grade gloves." The stricter standards led to a delay in availability

of imported gloves. "With product being held up in customs, shipments couldn't get into the country fast enough," she notes. "Ultimately, the good product got through, and this was definitely good in terms of anthrax-related safety."

Usage and Training

When it comes to the proper use of gloves in the workplace, there are two challenges. One is compliance (getting employees to wear them as recommended). The other is training (making sure employees know how to wear them for maximum protection).

Usage. While many employers have been pulling their hair out for years trying to get some employees to wear various types of gloves to protect themselves from injury or other exposures, usage of disposable nitrile gloves in response to anthrax has not been problematic. "With the media exposure, as well as the postal union's recommendation to postal workers to walk off the job if they were not provided gloves, there has been virtually no problem getting them to wear them," Memphis Glove's Garner says.

Copeland agrees: "While some employers might need to offer incentives or take other steps to encourage employees to wear gloves, post office employees were so eager to wear them that compliance was not an issue."

Their observations are supported by the postal service's Kreienkamp. "Due to workplace rules, we were able to make gloves and other protective equipment, such as face masks, available to employees, but we could not require them to wear them," he states. "However, this was not really an issue. Demand for the gloves and subsequent usage was high."

Training. Fortunately, training employees how to wear disposable gloves did not require the complexity that training them how to operate a large piece of machinery would, but there were still some important basics that had to be covered. "We have 35 industrial salespeople and managers around the U.S., and they were available for training and education," Best Glove's Wagner says.

Besides creating special training charts and posters for the postal service, the company also provided in-person training, focusing particularly on the details of how to properly don and doff gloves. "For example, when taking the gloves off, you don't pull from the fingertips; you pull from the cuff," he explains.

The postal service also provided its own training to workers via a video. "Part of it showed how to put the gloves on and how to take them off properly so that if any contamination were on the gloves, it would not be spread," Kreienkamp says. "We also focused on the proper disposal of the gloves."

The postal service has also created training material for employers and employees around the nation, especially those that work in mailrooms. (It is available online at www.usps.com.) "Our postal inspectors have also been available to visit employers' mailrooms to provide mail security training," he adds.

Current Demand

While the demand for disposables did not plummet as quickly as it shot up, there has been a steady decline since around November. "Fortunately, when the demand spiked, there was sufficient inventory available to accommodate everyone's needs," Garner reports. "Then, as demand began to shrink, we began to get back to nor- mal levels."

"By December, things were getting back to normal," Copeland adds. "This is when the postal service realized the threat had quieted down. In addition, they found that they had sufficient inventory levels."

Does the lack of current demand mean that the gloves are no longer being used? No. "What happened in a lot of cases was that customers overpurchased," Wagner explains. "The initial wave of purchases lasted three to four weeks. It was frantic, partly because customers were overestimating need."

For example, some customers computed demand this way: An employee with a lunch break and two coffee breaks would need four pairs of gloves a day, one in the morning, one after the first break, one after lunch and one after the second break. "Thus, an organization with 2,000 employees might calculate a need for 8,000 pairs of gloves a day," he continues. "However, they didn't take into account the fact that there were some employees who refused to wear them, others who simply didn't bother wearing them and still others who ended up reusing them."

As such, many organizations that made initially large purchases are no longer making these purchases. Their employees are still using the gloves, although not at the same level as late last year. "Many of the workers at the postal service, UPS, FedEx and some other delivery service companies still wear gloves," Wagner says. "They are not wearing them in the quantities they once did, but we expect some level of usage to continue for the long term."

"We estimate that about 50 percent of the postal workers who began wearing disposable gloves last year are still wearing them," Kreienkamp says. "However, we don't have any official numbers on usage. In addition, we have no way of knowing how long they will continue to wear them. But based on the number of gloves we purchased, we expect our supply to last for several years."

Garner anticipates a continued demand for disposables in the coming year, not only from postal workers, but also from other users, including anyone who has contact with mail. "This could even be the receptionist at the front desk," he states.

Other Uses

Whether demand for nitrile disposables continues from new customers in late 2001, Garner sees at least one new market. "We are finding an evolving marketplace in the automotive repair industry," he states. "Demand is beginning to increase as mechanics are starting to wear disposable gloves more often to decrease their exposure to cuts."

The industry itself seems to remain healthy. "The U.S. government has just released a couple of large contracts for chemical warfare gloves," North Safety's Seebode says. "We are hiring about 40 people to gear up to begin to produce these."

About the author: William Atkinson is a business writer with more than 25 years' experience. He specializes in writing on safety, health and environmental issues.

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