Touching on Trends in Hand Protection

What can employers and workers expect from hand protection in the near future?

Our hands are the second-most useful tool we have (the most useful tool being our brains). So, let’s use our brains and examine new trends and technologies in hand protection.

In 2005 – the most recent year for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has published such data – more than 160,000 workers experienced hand or finger injuries requiring days away from work. Nearly 9,000 of these injuries were caused by exposure to harmful environments such as chemicals, while approximately 140,000 were caused by contact with objects such as equipment or knives.

Cherilyn Nelson, vice president, fiber and knitting technology, for Ansell Healthcare, notes that occupational hand protection requirements recently have been impacted by a number of factors, including industrial trends and changes in the work force. 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 by a variety of industry-specific products which offer hand protection while maintaining or improving worker productivity,” says Nelson.

It is just not enough that the gloves do the job and protect hands from chemicals, abrasive materials or sharp objects. They also must fit well and allow for finger and wrist movement.

Much of the basic technology surrounding chemical protection and cut protection has not changed much for years, says David Shutt, global product manager for Best Manufacturing Inc. However, “everybody is doing something to enhance the base polymer, doing something to enhance softness, to increase comfort, to reduce hand fatigue and to enhance chemical resistance,” he admits.

“Fit, feel and comfort” have become almost as important as protection, according to Shutt.

“Current workers are not happy and content with using the same glove over and over. They want gloves for new applications, that provide greater dexterity and performance,” Shutt says, adding that cleanliness in some manufacturing environments is another factor for some employers and workers.

Workers also want a “ready-made family” of products. Whenever Best comes out with a new glove, every effort is made to produce the glove in every color possible, in several different dipped coatings and styles and with and without cuffs, says Shutt.

Best, like other glove makers, is using research and development to meet the changing needs of the workplace. In particular, the company is investigating how nanotechnology-inspired materials and manufacturing techniques could be applied to the glove industry. “We’re unsure at this point,” Shutt admits, “but we’re investigating how nanotech materials or a blend of materials will play out in the next generation of gloves.”

Ansell’s Nelson points out that “in recent years, gloves made with high-performance fibers have provided unprecedented levels of protection against a range of hazards, including cuts and abrasion.” Nelson cites fibers such as Kevlar and Twaron, which are known for their high strength and thermal stability; and Spectra and Dyneema, which are known for strength, abrasion resistance and cool feel on the hands.

“Besides new polymers, research has focused on the physical shape and length of high-performance fibers,” she says. “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.”

In addition, high-performance fibers can be combined to increase the performance of a glove: for example, by including fiberglass or wire in a yarn to boost cut resistance.

“The future holds many opportunities for the occupational glove industry,” Nelson concludes. “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.”

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