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Safety Matters: Matching the Glove to the Task

It may seem like hand protection is a very simple thing to address. Just take a pair of gloves and wear them … right? Wrong! The selection of the right hand protection can be quite vexing. If there are multiple uses, you may need gloves that are more versatile or even initiate a policy of changing out different gloves for different purposes. 

Hand injuries account for more than 10 percent of emergency room visits in the United States, according to Medline, a comprehensive source of life sciences and biomedical bibliographic information. The number of injuries alone should be evidence enough to ensure that proper hand protection is worn consistently. However, between October 2006 and September 2007, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) issued 225 violations for noncompliance with the rules for hand protection. These violations totaled more than $96,000 in fines. This does not include the costs associated with fines against general personal protective equipment (PPE) rules or other related violations that are likely to be issued.
So which glove can protect you from every chemical? There are some universal gloves to protect against chemicals that may satisfy virtually any exposure you could encounter, but they will be quite expensive and are usually not too comfortable. The best answer is to select the correct gloves for the specific exposures you may encounter. Below are some considerations for choosing the right gloves.

General decision making
Disposable or reusable — Do you have washing facilities available? What about storage? Disposable gloves will be inherently less durable, but if the tasks are of limited duration, they may make more sense. If you have long and consistent exposures, a reusable glove may be your best choice.

Grip — Selecting a glove that has enough dexterity and grip is vital. If you are handling large, bulky items, grip becomes less of an issue. But if you are dealing with small parts, performing intricate tasks, or working in cold or wet environments, grip could be very important. Make sure the polymers used in gripping gloves are tested in the environment in which you are going to work. Some may be good for dry application but not for wet. Some may melt in high temperatures or become rigid in cold. All of these answers are found in the product specifications you can obtain from the glove manufacturer.

Physical protection
Cutting/puncture/abrasion — The classic leather work glove will normally satisfy most physical protection needs on a work site. Knowing what types of hazards are present will help in choosing the best work glove. If slicing is a concern, then a metal thread or Kevlar-type glove will be best. If abrasion or blistering is the concern, then a common cotton-type glove may suffice. Keep in mind that the glove material must satisfy the need. Look at the product specifications closely and make your choice based upon them and not just the cost. Some of the more expensive top grain leathers are actually less durable than the lower cost, suede-leather styles.

Heat resistance/flame protection — Heat and fire protection are two very different things. Just because a glove will not burn under normal use does not mean it will insulate your hand from high temperatures. If you are handling hot surfaces, then heat resistance is most important. If you will expose the glove to open flames or very high temperatures, then flame resistance and heat resistance are vital.

Chemical protection
There are very few “generic” answers to selecting gloves to protect you from chemicals. The most versatile rule is “like material dissolves like material.” If you are working with chlorine-based chemicals, do not select a polyvinyl chloride glove. If you are dealing with alcohols, do not select a polyvinyl alcohol material for protection. Now that you know some of the selections not to choose, how do you find the material that you should choose? First and foremost, review the product’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). This will tell you what chemicals are in the product and will recommend an appropriate glove for protection. From there you can visit the glove supplier’s web site and look for items that match the MSDS recommendation. 

Permeability — Every glove has a specific permeability for every substance. No glove is 100 percent chemical proof for an indefinite period. In general, the higher the chemical resistance, the higher the cost and the more bulky the material will be. There is no point in over protection. You should choose the right glove for the right use. That is not to say that a safety factor would not be prudent, but simply selecting the highest level of protection is neither wise nor safe.
The table below provides some general guidance for hand protection materials. Use this as a starting point, and then select the glove that provides the best protection for all the exposures you can anticipate.

For more information
Once you have made some basic decisions, it is time to choose.

There are many resources available to assist you in selecting the perfect glove. A simple search engine query using “hand protection” leads to hundreds of suppliers, each with their own glove selection guide. You just need to know the conditions you may encounter.

Finally, review the references below to ensure you are fully prepared to make the best decisions when it comes to safety.

OSHA published its final rule on employer payment of PPE on Nov. 15, 2007. This rule applies to all forms of PPE with some special exceptions. Hand protection is just one of the issues covered under this ruling. If you want to read more about the rule, visit the OSHA at www.osha.gov/briefing.html

Table 1: General Properties of Selected Glove Materials

Glove Material Applications*
Butyl           A synthetic rubber material that offers the highest permeation resistance to gas and water vapors. Especially suited for use with esters and ketones.

Neoprene  A synthetic rubber material that provides excellent tensile strength and heat resistance. Neoprene is compatible with some acids and caustics. It has moderate abrasion resistance.

Nitrile         A synthetic rubber material that offers chemical and abrasion resistance — a very good general-duty glove. Nitrile also provides protection from oils, greases, petroleum products, and some acids and caustics.

PVC (polyvinyl chloride)  A synthetic thermoplastic polymer that provides excellent resistance to most acids, fats, and petroleum hydrocarbons. Good abrasion resistance.

PVA™ (polyvinyl alcohol)            A water-soluble synthetic material that is highly impermeable to gases. Excellent chemical resistance to aromatic and chlorinated solvents. This glove cannot be used in water or water-based solutions.

Viton           A fluoroelastomer material that provides exceptional chemical resistance to chlorinated and aromatic solvents. Viton is very flexible, but has minimal resistance to cuts and abrasions.

SilverShield           A lightweight, flexible laminated material that resists permeation from a wide range of toxic and hazardous chemicals. It offers the highest level of overall chemical resistance, but has virtually no cut resistance.

4H   A lightweight, patented plastic laminate that protects against many chemicals. Good dexterity.
*From http://www.labsafety.com/refinfo

Anticipating health and safety issues and taking action to prevent them is a long-term and profitable investment for companies. For more information on industrial hygiene and methods for promoting health and safety in the workplace, as well as a listing of industrial hygiene consultants, please visit the American Industrial Hygiene Association website at www.aiha.org.

John Glass has over 20 years of experience as an environmental health consultant. He has consulted on toxic exposures, risk management, and indoor air quality. He is the past president of the NJ Industrial Hygiene association and past chair of the AIHA Construction Committee. In addition, he has provided litigation support in several areas including mold, asbestos, IAQ and confined space entry.