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A Safe Pair of Hands

Published: 03rd Mar 2015


Giving employees protective gloves is a quick and easy solution to prevent hand injuries, right? Wrong. The right gloves can provide protection but the wrong gloves, or gloves used in the wrong situations, can in fact increase the risk of injury. In this article James Clayton examines the guidance out there to help you with your choice.

So what’s the problem?

Industries in the UK spend in excess of £30m a year on protective gloves to guard against a range of hazards including abrasion, temperature extremes, cuts and punctures, impact, chemicals, electric shock, radiation, vibration and biological agents.

Work-related skin problems are very common and while they are more common in certain high-risk jobs, they can occur in any work place. They can be very costly, not just through the suffering individuals’ experience, which can in some cases may lead to ending their careers, but also because they can leave employers with sickness absence, recruitment, training and compensation expenses.

As findings from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) state, a surveillance scheme that started in 2005 has collected reports of new cases of work-related ill health from a sample of around 250 general practitioners (GPs). While annual cases have fallen over the past 10 years, in 2013 there were an estimated 1,268 new cases of skin disease reported by dermatologists, of which three quarters were suffering from contact dermatitis.

There have also been some notable prosecutions recently where employees were seriously injured as a result of wearing gloves in the wrong situations. In October 2014 alone there were two separate cases where the HSE prosecuted firms in Macclesfield and the West Midlands following incidents where employees suffered serious hand injuries as a result of gloved hands becoming entangled in rotating drill bits.

Hand-arm vibration is vibration transmitted from work processes into workers’ hands and arms. It can be caused by operating hand held power tools such as road breakers, hand guided equipment such as powered lawnmowers, and by holding materials being processed by machines such as pedestal grinders. Regular and frequent exposure to hand-arm vibration can lead to permanent injury. Hand-arm vibration can cause a range of conditions collectively known as hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), as well as specific diseases such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

Throughout my career I have seen many accidents and problems caused by people not using the correct gloves. This is usually because they don’t think it’s necessary because their employer hasn’t explained to them properly why gloves are so important. I’ve also seen problems caused by people not looking after their gloves. For example, many don’t realise that gloves can easily become contaminated with dust or oil, which can reduce their effectiveness. People and employers often don’t select the right gloves, for example, they mistakenly choose a pair that is too thick, which means that the wearer can’t or won’t use them because they need to be able to feel what they’re doing.

What do I need to do?

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including gloves, should only be used as part of an overall risk management strategy and never as the only risk control. There are a number of steps to manage risk alongside potentially using protective gloves, but more of that later in this article.

Wherever there are risks to health and safety that cannot be adequately controlled in other ways, the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 require PPE to be supplied.

When you select protective gloves, base your choice on the work, the wearer and the environment they work in. It is also always worth double checking if those who will be wearing the gloves have any underlying skin conditions, as they may be more prone to certain types of skin complaint.

You need to consider the following five factors:

•  The substances handled •  All other hazards •  The type and duration of contact •  The user - size and comfort •  The task

The substances handled A first step is to ensure that you have the most up to date safety sheets for any chemical products that you are handling. This will help you to grasp exactly what type of gloves will be needed to provide the right protection. Generally, to protect hands from substances and/or chemicals, choose a glove that meets the European Standard EN374-3. You will, however, need to make sure the glove material you choose protects against the substances being handled.

Gloves differ in design, material and thickness. There is no one type of glove material that will protect against all substances. Nor will any gloves protect against a specific substance forever. For example,there are no protective gloves that have been tested to provide more than eight hours of protection against chemical penetration. You would need to replace the gloves once this eight-hour period was up, otherwise you would run the risk of serious injury.

‘Wet work’ tasks where hands experience prolonged or frequent contact with water, particularly in combination with soaps and detergents, can cause dermatitis. To protect the hands from ‘wet work’ make sure that you choose a glove that meets the European Standard EN374-2, which shows that the gloves are waterproof.

Some products contain substances that can harm the skin or enter the body through skin contact. The product label or material safety data sheet should tell you if this is the case. These may also give information on what protective gloves to use. If this is missing then you must contact the product supplier or manufacturer for help.

There are also some very harmful substances that don’t come in labelled containers. Many can be generated during work activities (for example, solder fumes or wood dust from sanding). Handling some ‘natural’ substances like foods and flowers can also cause skin problems. If you are unsure if a substance produced by a work process or a natural substance you are handling is harmful, you should seek advice from the HSE.

Charts created by manufacturers of gloves give an indication of how well their gloves perform against different substances. Manufacturers use three key terms:

•  Breakthrough time – The time a chemical takes to permeate through the glove material and reach the inside

•  Permeation rate – The process by which a chemical can pass through a material without going through pinholes, pores or other visible openings. This tells you how long you can use a glove for. The permeation rate is the amount that then permeates through. The higher the rate, the more of the chemical that will move through the glove. Choose the lowest rate available

•  Degradation – Some chemicals can destroy the glove material. It may get harder, softer or may swell. Degradation indicates the deterioration of the glove material on contact with a specific chemical, so choose gloves with an excellent or good degradation rating

Manufacturers’ charts are probably the most helpful for identifying the best gloves for the chemicals being handled. If you are still unsure, however, contact the glove manufacturers. Glove materials and their performance can vary slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer, so it’s vital that you base your selection on the correct manufacturers’ data.

Keep in mind that the manufacturers’ data is for pure chemicals, not mixtures. When you mix chemicals, their properties can change. As a rule of thumb, base your glove selection on the component in the mixture with the shortest breakthrough time. The only way to be absolutely sure that a glove performs well against the mixture, however, is to have it tested, which may require professional support.

Latex allergy is relatively common, so choose a latex-free option if possible. If latex must be used due to limited alternatives, use low protein, powder-free gloves.

All other hazards You must also identify any other hazards that are present. For example, is there a risk of abrasion, cuts, puncture or high temperature? There are chemical protective gloves that also give protection against mechanical hazards (those marked EN388) and thermal hazards (those marked EN407).

Solutions to guard against injury from vibration are also commercially available, these are usually marketed as ‘anti-vibration’. They work by isolating the wearer’s hands from the harmful effects of vibrations. While there are many options available many are only suitable for certain tasks, so they will not be particularly effective at reducing the frequency-weighted vibration associated with the risk of HAVS. At some frequencies they can actually increase vibration to the hands.

It’s usually impossible to assess the vibration reduction provided by anti-vibration gloves, so it is not advised to rely on them to provide protection from vibration. Gloves can, however, be useful to protect vibration-exposed workers from the cold, helping to maintain circulation.

Another permanent injury that can be caused to the hands is finger blanching, commonly known as Raynaud’s phenomenon. Working outdoors or in cold climates that lead to low hand or body temperature increases the risk of finger blanching because of the reduced blood circulation. It’s vital that employees working outdoors in cold weather have adequate protection to guard against this. The temperature in an indoor workplace should provide reasonable comfort without the need for special clothing and should normally be at least 16 °C. If for whatever reason this is not possible, such as for workers in a cold storage facility, you should provide warm clothing and gloves. Remember to provide more than one set for each employee if the gloves or clothing are likely to become wet.

In terms of maintenance, gloves and other clothing should be regularly assessed for good fit and for effectiveness in keeping the hands and body warm and dry in the working environment. You should also ensure that gloves or other clothing you provide do not stop employees working safely and do not present a risk of entanglement with moving parts of machinery.

The type and duration of contact Consider exactly how long the gloves will be worn for. If the wearer is due to be using the gloves for a long period of time then comfort is paramount. While it’s true to a certain extent that thicker gloves offer greater protection, thinner gloves have the advantage of allowing greater dexterity.

Also consider whether the gloves will be subjected to occasional splashes or total immersion. Short gloves are fine for protecting against minimal splashes, but if the wearer’s hands are likely to be immersed then you must choose a length greater than the depth of immersion.

Size and comfort Gloves should fit the wearer. Tight gloves can make hands feel tired and lose their grip. Too large gloves can create folds, which can impair work and be uncomfortable. Ensure they fit the wearer properly and are worn correctly for the job being done; for example, there should be no gap between the glove and the wearer’s sleeve when handling dangerous chemicals. It can help to use sizing charts.

Comfortable gloves are more likely to be worn. Involve employees in the selection process and give them a reasonable choice to pick from. This can sometimes promote buy-in to wearing them.

Hands can sweat inside gloves making them uncomfortable to wear. Getting staff to take glove breaks, removing gloves for a minute or so before hands get too hot and sweaty, can help air the hands. You could also consider supplying separate cotton gloves that can be laundered and reused to wear under protective gloves. These can increase comfort by absorbing sweat.

Make sure that users are not allergic to or sensitised by the material, for example, latex gloves are made of rubber and the proteins present in the rubber are skin and respiratory sensitisers. If you have to use latex gloves, use a powder-free type containing a minimum amount of free proteins. It may be better to select an alternative material, if practicable.

The task Gloves should not hamper the task. If wet or oily objects are handled, choose gloves with a roughened or textured surface for good grip. Select gloves that balance protection with dexterity.

Ensure the gloves selected meet any standards required for the task, e.g. sterile gloves. Consider whether colour is important, e.g. to show up contamination.

Once you have selected your gloves make sure everyone knows how to use them properly to protect themselves. Tell them when they should be replaced, and if they are reusable gloves ask them to rinse them before removal (if practical) and tell them how they should be stored.

Ensure users can handle and remove the gloves carefully to avoid contamination of the hands and the inside of the gloves. Contaminants that get inside the glove and sit permanently against the skin may cause greater exposure than if a glove had not been worn at all. Many wearers are not instructed on how to correctly put on and take off gloves, which means that the insides of the gloves become contaminated when worn subsequently. This contamination can cause damage to the skin.

Review their use periodically and get employee feedback, this can help check that the gloves are performing properly. Check gloves regularly and throw them away if they are worn or have deteriorated. They should be free of holes or cuts and debris and their shape should not be distorted.

The HSE have also produced a useful memory aid which can be used when selecting gloves.

PPE in context

Earlier in this article I talked about how PPE should only be used as part of an overall risk management strategy. L21, the HSE’s Approved Code of Practice and Guidance relating to the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, outlines the following risk management principles:

1.  If possible avoid a risk altogether, e.g. conduct the work in a different way, taking care not to introduce new hazards.

2.  Evaluate risks that cannot be avoided by carrying out a risk assessment.

3.  Combat risks at source, rather than taking palliative measures. So, if you need to use a hazardous substance, replacing it with a less hazardous alternative is better than providing gloves.

4.  Adapt work to the requirements of the individual by consulting those who will be affected when designing workplaces, selecting work and PPE and drawing up working and safety procedures and methods of production.

5.  Take advantage of technological and technical progress, which often offers opportunities for improving working methods and making them safer, e.g. purchasing lower vibration tools rather than providing ‘anti-vibration’ gloves.

6.  Implement risk prevention measures to form part of a coherent policy and approach. This will progressively reduce those risks that cannot be prevented or avoided altogether, and will take account of the way work is organised, the working conditions, the environment and any relevant social factors.

7.  Give priority to measures that protect the whole workplace and staff, and which therefore give the greatest benefit (i.e. give collective protective measures priority over individual measures).

8.  Ensure that workers, whether employees or self-employed, understand what they must do.

9.  A positive health and safety culture should exist within an organisation. That means the avoidance, prevention and reduction of risks at work must be accepted as part of the organisation’s approach and attitude to all its activities. It should be recognised at all tiers of the organisation, from junior level to senior management.

L21 also states that employers must have access to competent help in applying the provisions of health and safety law. In particular they need competent help in devising and applying protective measures, unless they are competent to undertake the measures without assistance.


In summary, we can say that protective gloves can certainly form part of an effective risk management strategy if chosen carefully and used appropriately, but they should never be seen as a first choice for risk control. They should instead form part of an overall management strategy, which should be always be implemented with competent support.

Published: 03rd Mar 2015 in Health and Safety International

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