Fits like a glove

Ergonomic glove design keeps workers comfortable and productive

Buying gloves for workers may sound like a fairly straightforward task, but there’s more to it than one might assume. Not only do you want to protect workers from hand injuries — everything from repetitive stress to chemical burns — you also want them to be comfortable and productive. Often, these go hand in hand.

The cost of work-related hand injuries can add up. The average total incurred cost per claim for 2009-10 in the United States was almost $29,000, according to the National Safety Council in Chicago.

Those costs can compound quickly, from absenteeism and lost productivity to fines and damage to equipment.

Gloves, like any type of personal protective equipment, should be part of an overall safety strategy, says Christopher Liddy, occupational health and safety specialist with the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), based in Hamilton.

The purpose of a protective glove is to provide workers with a safety device that protects one of their most valuable assets — their hands. If the protection itself causes harm to the hands in the form of discomfort or even strain and injury over time, then the purpose of the protective glove has been defeated, says Angela Fisher, product development manager with Stanstead, Que.-based Jomac Canada, a subsidiary of Wells Lamont.

If the glove is uncomfortable, a worker is less likely to wear it. When it comes to hand injuries on the job, workers are not wearing gloves in 70 per cent of all cases, according to Work-Related Hand Injuries and Upper Extremity Amputations from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

The remaining injuries are a result of wearing damaged gloves or the wrong type of glove.

“Do you really need any other reason to choose ergonomically designed gloves?” says Joe Geng, vice-president of Acton, Ont.-based Superior Glove Works.

Consider new technologies

The problem, at least in the past, was that gloves were thick and bulky, often making it harder for a worker to perform a particular task with gloves on — and sometimes resulting in strains and pains.

The industry, as a result, has taken steps to improve both comfort and dexterity — and there’s a lot of science and technology that goes into the new fabrics available today.

Ansell, for example, designs gloves with various stitch designs that focus on the fatigue areas of hand. 

“When you’re constantly working on a particular application, the hand is naturally going to get fatigued because you’re using the same muscles,” says Jason Kokoszka, senior product/brand marketing manager of industrial, North America, for Ansell, based in Iselin, N.J.

And, if workers are fatigued, there’s a good chance they’ll take their gloves off and go back to the job bare handed, he adds.

New technologies such as moisture management and enhanced dexterity are helping to combat hand injuries, such as carpel tunnel syndrome. For example, Ansell uses knitting technology that allows the glove to better conform to the hand and then hold the fit. 

Match glove to job

Every job is different and carries its own unique hazards, says Fisher. Different gloves are available to address a variety of safety requirements — everything from cut, abrasion and impact protection to grip requirements and resistance to chemicals, liquids and fire. 

That’s why doing an assessment is critical, and this is where manufacturers can help (as does CCOHS’s website).

“Our territory managers go out into workplaces and… do a hand protection evaluation to understand what the application is, what type of protection they need, (and) how long they’re wearing the glove,” says Kokoszka.

Gloves are generally designed for specific industries, although there is some crossover. A glove designed for oil and gas applications, for example, will incorporate impact protection as well as good oil grip into the glove, whereas the design of a glove for glass handling will incorporate cut resistance and good grip, says Geng.

When working with abrasive materials or sharp edges, the protective material will vary, depending on the hazard.

If you’re working with mildly abrasive materials, rubber, plastic or nylon gloves may be suitable, whereas if you’re working with more severe abrasive materials, you may require reinforced heavy rubber or staple-reinforced heavy leather. For paper-cuts, a lightweight polyester or cotton glove might be suitable, while dangerous sharp edges may require metal mesh.

If you’re working with sheet metal, you want something that protects against sharp edges, but also provides grip. There’s a lubricant on sheet metal that helps when unloading it, but that can become slippery, says Kokoszka, so a grip coating on the glove is helpful. 

When working with chemicals, picking the right glove is especially critical; a particular material may protect you against one chemical, but not another. Some chemicals will penetrate through nitrile latex in a short period of time, while in other cases, the same material could protect you for hours, says Liddy.

The material that’s appropriate for a particular task may also be affected by longevity of exposure. Consider whether a worker is going to be exposed to a chemical for 30 seconds or if she’s dipping her arm into it for hours.

“Suggested materials should be selected based on quantitative information such as permeation rate, breakthrough time, penetration and degradation,” according to the CCOHS.

Some new gloves also include touch screen capability. These can be useful for workers who regularly need to access documents on a smartphone or iPad device, so they can complete these tasks without removing their gloves. This not only makes it easier for the worker, but reduces the likelihood of an injury. 

Involve workers

Because comfort and dexterity are important to workers’ overall safety, they should be involved in both glove selection and trials, and the glove manufacturer should be willing to help with an assessment and offer training for workers.

As with any type of PPE, training is important — so workers understand why a particular control is being used, how they can properly maintain their gloves, how they can identify if a glove is no longer working, and when to dispose of or replace their gloves.

“They have to have a good understanding of why this control is put in place and why it’s in their best interest to use it,” says Liddy.

In some cases, it’s necessary to have a competent person inspect the gloves on a regular or even daily basis (say, if the gloves are meant to protect against radiation).

But all workers should be trained on how to maintain their gloves according to the manufacturer’s specifications and intended use, and be able to do daily inspections so they know if something is “off.”

It’s also the responsibility of employers to train their workers on the limitations of gloves and what could happen if they fail. 

With the newer high-tech materials and more ergonomic designs on the market, workers can get the best of both worlds — safety and comfort.

Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance writer based in Toronto. She can be reached at [email protected]