Hand Protection: Meeting the Changing Needs of the Workplace

A glove manufacturer discusses the impact that industrial trends, changes in the work force and other factors have made on occupational hand protection requirements.

by Cherilyn Nelson

The shift in American industry from production to service has created a similar shift in worker needs for hand protection. Heavy, thick gloves, once considered a standard in hand protection, are being replaced with a variety of industry-specific products that offer protection while maintaining or improving worker productivity.

The composition of the American work force has changed as well, influencing occupational hand protection requirements. Older workers, women and immigrants all bring different requirements for glove sizes and shapes, making "one-size-fits-all" a questionable concept and safety practice. Add to this a seasonal influx of young workers comprised of high school or college students and the result is a very diverse worker population with varied and specific hand protection needs.

Products for Specific Needs

Gloves used by workers today not only must meet performance criteria but also must fit well and provide sufficient levels of comfort so workers will make a conscious choice to wear them. However, the requirements for performance, fit and comfort vary from industry to industry.

For example, the material handling and product assembly sectors may require gloves that can protect against cuts, punctures and abrasions while providing high levels of dexterity and tactile sensitivity. Workers in the waste management industry must protect their hands from moisture, chemicals and sometimes unknown substances. In the growing construction industry, workers need protection from abrasive surfaces, wood and metal splinters and injuries associated with repetitive motion and vibration.

The recognition of potential musculoskeletal injuries from repetitive motion and vibration has identified a need in many industries for more ergonomically designed hand protection products. These products can be designed to provide support for different parts of the hand or wrist, or to provide cushioning for protection against impact.

The challenge in the occupational glove industry is to design products that address specific worker needs for ergonomic design, fit and comfort and performance. Once these needs have been identified, the focus shifts to the selection of appropriate materials and processes that will be used to make the gloves. Advances in fibers and yarns, knitting technology and coating technology provide many options for material combinations to address specific hand protection requirements.

High-Tech Fibers and Yarns

In recent years, gloves made with high-performance fibers have provided unprecedented levels of protection against a range of hazards, including cuts and abrasions. Aramid fibers such as Kevlar and Twaron are known for their high strength and thermal stability. Polyethylene fibers such as Spectra and Dyneema also are known for their high strength, as well as for abrasion resistance and a cool feel on the hands. While these four fibers are widely used in the protective glove industry, research continues to identify other polymers that can be commercialized in fiber form.

Besides new polymers, research has focused on the physical shape and length of high-performance fibers. By altering the cross-sectional shape of a fiber, it is possible to change the way a fiber will feel to the touch and improve properties such as heat retention and moisture transport. Long-staple fibers can be used to create spun yarns, which have improved comfort and performance compared to short-staple yarns.

High-performance fibers also can be combined in engineered yarns to increase the capabilities and performance of a glove. Including fiberglass or wire in a yarn can boost the glove's cut resistance to a higher level. Engineered yarns offer many unique ways to meet the performance requirements of various gloves.

Advanced Knitting Technology

To assure gloves made with high-performance fibers or yarns are as comfortable as possible, manufacturers can employ a variety of knitting technologies. Plating is a knitting technology that allows insertion of a material inside the glove that is different than the material used on the outside. A Kevlar glove, for example, may be plated with a softer yarn to improve comfort and to encourage workers to wear the product for longer periods.

Another technology allows knit stitches to be varied in certain areas for added dexterity, support and protection. By changing stitch density in high-stress areas such as the knuckles or back of the hand, for example, it is possible to increase dexterity and flexibility and reduce hand fatigue.

Depending upon the style of glove and the application, the knit stitches around the thumb and pointer finger may be smaller and closer together to reinforce the area and provide a higher level of protection against cuts and abrasions. This capability especially is important since the thumb and pointer finger often are injured in accidents involving the hands.

Special Coatings

Coatings can be applied to knitted gloves to provide additional protection for the hands. Gloves are available with coatings such as nitrile and foamed nitrile that keep fluids from penetrating through to the fingers. This can help prevent dermatitis and improve worker productivity. Providing workers with gloves that have an improved grip because of a special coating, for example, can be an important element in preventing repetitive motion injuries such as carpel tunnel syndrome, deQuervain's disease and tendonitis.

Recently developed coating technology allows workers to secure a firm grip on wet or oily objects while applying significantly less grip force. A roughened grip surface comprised of microscopic channels in a patented ultra-thin coating functions to direct fluids away from the glove/object interface. Studies confirmed that workers wearing gloves incorporating the new grip surface were able to use 35 percent to 65 percent less force to grip and lift an oily object such as a steel shaft. Workers also were able to maintain a secure grip when the weight of the object suddenly was increased.

Testing and Training

The level of performance required to effectively protect worker hands has prompted more manufacturers to rely on third-party facilities such as universities and independent laboratories to validate their products' protective qualities. Whereas testing often was limited to the laboratory in the past, more glove manufacturers are relying on field testing to verify product performance claims in a dynamic environment.

Training is continuing and expanding in customer facilities as more companies recognize the economic advantages associated with an effective safety program, including reduced insurance premiums and increased worker productivity. Studies show that workers are more likely to wear gloves and keep them on if they understand the product's purpose and why specific gloves were selected.

Companies are employing a variety of tools - from glove boards and brochures to training videos, online resources and newsletters - to educate workers. Training has become especially important for seasonal and new workers and those learning new processes and/or changing jobs.

The Future

The future holds many opportunities for the occupational glove industry. Despite the competition from often less-expensive "imitations," the occupational glove industry will continue to develop gloves for more specialized purposes, providing workers a wider range of hand protection products from which to choose. New technologies - ranging from smart fibers that respond to various stimuli, to new engineered yarns, to enhanced latex coatings - will continue to be incorporated into protective gloves.

Glove manufacturers will look for new ways to increase worker comfort and to decrease lost workdays and workers' compensation due to hand injuries. As a result, glove research and development will rely on increased interaction with end-users to identify specific needs. Ergonomic design will become increasingly important, as will the need for third-party testing, to confirm a glove's comfort level and its protective performance.

With the array of products that will be available, companies purchasing hand protection products for their workers must continue to evaluate individual products to determine their ability to prevent employee injuries while promoting productivity. They also may want to team with a glove provider partner that can help them identify personal protective equipment best practices and opportunities for reducing operating costs.

Cherilyn Nelson is vice president, fiber and knitting technology, for Red Bank, N.J.-based Ansell. For more information, visit http://www.ansellpro.com.

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