Protecting the Hands of Working Women

With 70 million working women, manufacturers of personal protective equipment are offering extra-small sizes and other accommodations to keep female workers injury-free and productive.

Ever since World War II, women have been a growing factor in the U.S. work force. Today, women make up nearly 50 percent of the U.S. labor force. This, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, means that more than 70 million U.S. women are working. That contrasts dramatically with 1950, when only about one in three women worked.

Women are a factor in almost every industry: Nearly 200,000 women are in the U.S. military, nearly 10 percent of the construction industry work force is comprised of women and millions of women are employed in factories, laboratories, health care jobs, food preparation and automotives. In health care, the second-fastest-growing sector of the U.S. economy, nearly 80 percent of the 12 million workers are women.

It is no wonder that the U.S. hand protection industry has taken giant steps forward in providing personal protective equipment (PPE) that meets women's hand protection criteria. New smart fibers, engineered yarns and coatings that provide extra protection, comfort and functionality are being researched, as are new knitting techniques such as “plating” that make it possible to use different fibers on the inside and outside of the glove. At the same time, more and more gloves are being offered in extra-small sizes to provide the proper fit for the female worker.

Aesthetics also are being addressed, with the introduction of feminine, colorful, disposable gloves.

With an impending H1N1 influenza (swine flu) outbreak considered likely, catering to the hand protection needs of the 9.6 million female health care workers has become imperative. The glove wearing that became high profile with the prevalence of HIV/AIDS once again is a top priority.

WHAT DO WOMEN WANT?

When it comes to hand protection, women workers want the assurance that they will be protected from workplace hazards and contaminants. In short, they want their hands to be the same at the end of the day as they were at the beginning of the work day: nails (and perhaps manicures) intact, no imbedded grime or stains and no cuts, abrasions, injuries or lurking germs.

This means that women in jobs where there is repetitive motion or vibration want ergonomically designed gloves that provide cushioning and support to guard against potential musculoskeletal injuries. Women working with biohazards want barrier protection and the confidence that going to work will not make them sick. Women handling chemicals or cleaning agents want to be sure that their gloves — not their hands — suffer the abuse.

In general, no matter what glove they are wearing, women want second-skin hand comfort, reduced hand fatigue, flexibility and the assurance that the glove won't fail in the middle of the job. Women require gloves that facilitate job performance. Cut-resistance becomes a moot point if the glove is so clumsy that the factory worker needs to take her gloves off to perform her job. If a glove makes her hands sweat, a female worker likely will seek an alternative. Similarly, female workers handling oily, slippery or wet items want to be confident that their gloves are up to the task and have the right grip factor to hold on. Women also want gloves to be made of materials that won't harm them or expose them to risks such as of latex allergies. In addition, women are sensitive to both what a glove smells like and how it looks.

WHAT ARE WOMEN WEARING?

Hand protection varies greatly from industry to industry. With some hospitals now latex-free (particularly children's hospitals where spina bifida concerns are high), synthetics continue to rise as a great choice in hand protection. Introduced nearly two decades ago, nitrile is a favorite. Many women health care workers also like the fact that more and more nitrile glove models are being produced in colors. Glove wearing to protect patients from germs has become even more important with the release of data last year from the University of Colorado published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That study shows that hands harbor an average of about 150 different bacteria types with women having more germ diversity than men. These bacteria either came back quickly after hand washing or simply are not dislodged by it.

Many women working in the automotive industry are challenged to keep their hands free from oil and grime while protecting them from accidental injury. Among the favorite glove materials are nylon knit or breathable cotton knit glove liners coated with nitrile or natural rubber latex (NRL).

In the construction industry, women are moving away from leather gloves in favor of coated knit gloves with the extra cut protection found in fibers such as DuPont's Kevlar. Comfort, protection and washability make these palm- and over-the-knuckle coated gloves a favorite among many female workers.

Visibility is a top concern for women on road construction sites. Fortunately, many different hand protection choices now come in hi-vis colors that greatly enhance driver awareness of workers during daylight and twilight hours.

These days, women working in the dental industry prefer new, colorful, nitrile disposable gloves. Their ongoing contact with patient fluids makes them highly selective when evaluating gloves for barrier protection.

Depending upon the product being produced, women in manufacturing are selecting from a wide variety of color choices in disposable and general-purpose gloves. When the risk of cut injury is a factor, women often choose gloves knit of aramid fibers that are then dipped in nitrile.

For the many women who work in laboratories and technical assembly, wearing gloves is a way of life. Because they want their gloves to be both comfortable and utilitarian, they often opt for disposables to protect themselves from biohazards hazards and to guard the delicate equipment they work on from harm.

Women are getting better and better protection against the harsh chemicals and bacteria they deal with in keeping America's workplaces clean. Typically, they are wearing long-lasting, medium-gauge, coated gloves with a comfortable knit liner for the heavy work and disposable gloves for lighter applications.

ON THE HORIZON

The hand protection industry is ever mindful of the fact that women's hand protection needs are somewhat different than those of men. New technology and materials target workers' specific needs, providing them with the hand protection they need to feel good about wearing gloves and to achieve zero harm to their hands. This means that gloves are being designed so that female workers can end the workweek with their hands in the same great state they were at the start of the workweek.

Dave Shutt coordinates Showa Best Glove's new product development in general purpose, disposable and chemical-resistant glove lines among research and development, field sales and marketing teams, as well as distributor and end-user customers. A 20+-year veteran with industry leaders, he most recently served as Best's central region manager. He holds a degree in business administration from Malone University and is a Carnegie graduate. He currently resides in Coshocton, Ohio.

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