Are you using gloves correctly?

Chemicals coming into contact with the skin can cause diseases on the skin or elsewhere in the body due to skin absorption of chemicals. The hands are the most exposed and affected parts of the skin. Approximately 80 per cent of all work-related skin disease on the hands is irritant and allergic contact dermatitis.

Skin absorption of chemicals can cause poisoning and several diseases such as cancer, nervous system disorders and kidney diseases. To protect workers from effects of skin exposure to hazardous chemicals, the UK industry uses thousands of pairs of chemical protective gloves each year, costing millions of pounds to purchase, store, use and dispose of.

There are a few key issues:

  • In many instances, the hands are routinely immersed in, or are in frequent contact with, chemicals
  • Often, the hands are being used as tools rather than as an aid for handling chemicals and for manipulating work pieces contaminated with chemicals
  • Gloves are being used as the first line of protection, even when other protective methods could be used for the implementation of an adequate safe working distance (SWD) between the skin and chemicals
  • Many employers and glove wearers do not appreciate the ways in which skin exposure takes place. This lack of knowledge can lead to unnecessary skin exposure to chemicals
  • In HSE’s experience, many employers are not paying adequate attention to the correct selection of suitable chemical protective gloves, nor are they ensuring that gloves are used and stored correctly

Therefore, this article deals with examples of the pertinent factors that will require closer attention to ensure correct selection and use of chemical protective gloves so that the investment can deliver the intended benefits. This article does not go into all the requirements for the optimum choice of chemical protective glove materials and thicknesses. Those requirements are specific to the chemicals in question and the brand of glove, so the best advice should be sought (for example from a reputable supplier). Previous articles in Health and Safety International have covered these aspects of glove selection 1 & 2 .

Requirements for correct selection and use

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (as amended) stipulate requirements for controlling exposure to substances hazardous to health including chemical substances.

These regulations require that employers must prevent or adequately control the exposure of their employees to hazardous substances. The most effective and reliable way to prevent or control skin exposure to chemicals is to design and operate processes to avoid skin contact in the first place.

The law demands that chemical protective gloves, which are personal protective equipment, are used only as a last line of protection. In addition, the law requires that chemical protective gloves selected are adequate and suitable and that the users are trained and instructed on correct use, care, storage and disposal. Some issues requiring attention for correct selection and use include:

  • The presence of the “CE” mark does not automatically mean that the gloves are adequate and suitable
  • One size will not fit all users
  • Gloves can keep contamination in just as effectively as they keep it out. Once they are contaminated inside, they act as a reservoir, ready to recontaminate the hands, which may then go on to contribute to inadvertent inhalation and ingestion exposures as well as to transfer contamination to other parts of the skin
  • Putting contaminated hands inside gloves will re-contaminate the hands every time afterwards
  • Wearers rarely look inside the glove to see if it is contaminated. They may not see the problem even if they do look because the contamination may not be visible to the eyes for a number of reasons. The chemical may be colourless or at a low concentration but at toxic levels or it may be a gas or vapour
  • Gloves may have very fine holes, and the wearers may not realise that this can be present in new and used gloves. The presence of holes can be particularly dangerous against fast acting chemicals (e.g. hydrofluoric acid)
  • Dip-coated gloves may cause a significant wicking effect, allowing chemicals to reach the skin inside the gloves. Dip-coated gloves are fabric gloves dipped in a rubber compound. The fibres from the liners may penetrate the rubber coating and act like a wick to draw the chemicals inside
  • Chemical degradation of a glove may not be visible, but it can make the glove useless. It can increase the internal contamination very significantly
  • Gloves may pick up contamination on the outside as well as the inside during storage. This can happen when they are not stored correctly in between uses
  • Wearers may not remember where the gloves have been stored or what other chemicals they have been exposed to
  • Copious sweat inside the glove is a good environment for microbial growth, which can lead to skin problems
  • Gloves contaminated with toxic chemicals (e.g. a carcinogen) may act as a source for third party exposures. Examples include other family members if the gloves are taken home, other workers if the contamination is transferred to paperwork and surfaces, and waste handling workers, due to inappropriate disposal
  • The perception that glove use is as simple as putting it on and taking it off as and when necessary. In other words, it is “too obvious to bother with” anything else

So, are you sure that you know how to select adequate and suitable chemical protective gloves and that your employees know how to correctly use, store and dispose chemical protective gloves? Read on…

Practical aspects of selection, use and storage

Adequate and Suitable Glove

In this context, “Adequate” means that the gloves selected have the potential to control skin exposure to the chemical(s) in question. The elements contributing to adequacy will include:

  • Glove resistance to chemical permeation – it should not be used beyond the certified breakthrough time
  • Chemical degradation of the glove material. It should not cause exposure
  • Pinholes in glove. They should not allow chemicals though and cause exposure

“Suitable” means that the potentially adequate glove is also matched to the wearer, the work and the environment in which it is to be used.

CE marking

There appears to be a perception that selecting a glove with the ‘CE’ marking and the chemical protective pictogram (Figure 1) should be enough to ensure that it is adequate and suitable against chemicals. The ‘CE’ mark and the chemical pictogram do not make a glove adequate or suitable. They indicate that the glove has satisfied a procedure for meeting the minimum requirements laid down in the European law and it can be placed on the market as PPE for chemical protection. The employer has legal responsibilities to select adequate and suitable chemical protective gloves.

Glove size

Selecting the correct sized glove is important and it can be done easily with a glove size selection chart. One size will not fit all workers. Employers will have to provide a selection of sizes to meet the requirements of their employees. If the glove is too tight, a reusable glove can’t be put on or taken off easily. A larger sized glove can allow some limited airflow around the hand, as can a flared cuff. But if the glove is too loose, the webs of the fingers can butt into the fabric, and will quickly become sore. Ill-fitting gloves will cause loss of dexterity leading to the potential for trapping or dropping objects, both actions might cause an accident or injury.

Cuff length

Where gloved hand immersion is justified, as necessary, in the risk assessment, one way to improve glove use and prevent the spread of contamination is to reduce the immersion depth of the hands. In addition, it is important to establish cuff length requirements. The glove cuff must exceed the immersion depth or handling area by a margin. If the “spare” cuff is too short, chemicals can splash backwards onto the sleeves or skin (Figure 2). This “spare” cuff is also used as a safe handling area to remove and re-don the gloves.

No matter how long the cuff, if there is a need to raise the hand, liquids can run down the glove and onto the arm, and the effects are shown in Figure 3. In this example, first priority should be look for alternative ways to accomplish the job. But a way to reduce the problem where a small amount of run-off is expected, is to fold back the cuff to form a drip catcher (Figure 3). This effectively makes the glove shorter, so the cuff length should be increased to allow for the fold-back to maintain the splash-back length of cuff. Perhaps in future, more types of gloves with moulded fold-backs will be made.

Glove liners

The atmosphere inside a glove is warm, humid and enclosed, ideal conditions for bacteria and fungi to reproduce and for infections to spread. The warm humid atmosphere inside a glove softens the skin. It can over-hydrate and be damaged more easily. Bacteria can attack the damaged areas further. Damaged skin can lose its water-retentive properties and can become too dry. These effects can be minimised in a number of ways.

These include: using inner glove liners, using absorbent-lined gloves, taking “glove breaks” and regular use of a moisturising skin care cream to maintain hydration.

Glove liners can improve the comfort of the hands inside the protective gloves. They are thin, they absorb moisture, and they can make the protective glove more hygienic and easier to put on and take off. Glove liners can be washable for reuse (e.g. silk) or disposable (Figure 4). They are available in various materials, thicknesses and cuff lengths. However they will accumulate dirt and bacteria over time, and must be changed regularly. People suffering dermatitis may find these liners especially beneficial. Alternatively, absorbent-lined gloves help to absorb excess sweat. When using these gloves, care should be taken to ensure that they will not present problems due to wicking effects.

Interaction with other clothing

It is well known that goggles can interfere with the fit of a respirator facemask, and that the whole ensemble should be selected to be compatible. Similarly, the glove/sleeve interaction can affect the glove’s performance. Wide, heavy sleeves of workwear (not considered to be PPE) can touch surfaces and become contaminated. There are several ways to reduce this. One is to substitute a narrower sleeved garment, another is to fold back the cuff just in front of the sleeve, but this reduces overall glove length drastically. A third way is to use a heavier-duty gauntlet with a longer, wider cuff that fits over the garment, however if it is not wide enough it will create problems with fit and comfort (Figure 5). But here is a cheap and easy solution. Take a 15cm sticky backed length of Velcro TM loops and an equal length of hooks – the sticky side grips the workwear to help you fit it on yourself without help. The loops bind the sleeve more tightly. They make great disposable bicycle clips, too.

Clothing can stretch and ride up in use, or the cuffs of floppy gloves can ride down exposing the wrist and arm to splashes. One way to prevent this is to tape the glove cuff around the sleeve. However this does not allow the gloves to be easily removed after being splashed. This technique is more often used inside and outside the sleeve in double-gloving. Another way is to use protective gloves with a built-in extended sleeve protector for splash protection, or a separate sleeve protector. These are less suited to liquid splashes because the sleeves may not be as chemically protective as the gloves.

Incorrect glove use

Incorrect use can be a major problem for preventing skin contamination. Examples given here illustrate the need for training, instruction and supervision.

The glove in Figure 6 has clearly been used inside out on the other hand. Note that the user has also made a folded-back cuff. The glove is “stored” on the floor where it may be trampled and/or pick up further contamination. This glove should not be re-used.

One glove in Figure 7 has been placed to one side near the chemicals, but the other has been “stored” in the tray recess with the chemicals in use (printing inks and solvents) and the lid of a paint tin placed on top. The glove will pick up solvents during storage, cuffs will become contaminated and it will be very difficult to put those gloves on again without self-contamination.

Figure 8 shows a machine operator who deliberately cut the glove’s fingertips off to allow greater dexterity and not realising or ignoring the consequences of chemical exposure.

Reusable gloves

Wash or wipe the gloves off before removing them. This reduces the severity of any self-contamination. Store them as a pair together, away from the chemicals. Follow a suitable set of instructions for donning and doffing. An example poster giving instruction can be found in HSE website (Reference 4).

Single-use (splash protection) gloves

These gloves should be changed directly after they have become contaminated. Follow a suitable set of instructions for doffing. An example poster giving instruction can be found in HSE website (Reference 4)


Often, simple changes to the work practice can reduce the need to immerse the glove as far, and reduce the frequency of doing so. HSE is promoting the SWD approach, increasing the distance between the hazard and the hands. This approach can be applied even if the hands are protected inside the gloves. Simple tools can drastically reduce the need for hand/glove immersion by increasing that distance. For example, a pair of tongs can eliminate immersion altogether; a cleaning scrubber on the end of a handle can eliminate the need for immersing and rinsing cleaning cloths (Figure 9).

HSE has produced posters for putting up at wash stations and around the workplace. These posters illustrate the principles of SWD and methods for donning and doffing gloves, hand washing and application of hand creams. They are freely available to download from 4 . The importance of reinforcing the correct methods to remove gloves is that repetition becomes habit, and general hygiene awareness is increased.

It should be clear by now that misperceptions such as “CE marked gloves will mean adequate and suitable gloves” or “Glove use is as simple as putting it on and taking it off as and when necessary” will not help adequate control of skin exposure to chemicals. Effective protection will only be achieved when gloves are correctly selected, used, stored and disposed of. Reputable manufacturers and suppliers of gloves, such as the members of the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF), should be able to help employers in these matters.


  • Protective Gloves. Health and Safety International, October 2007 pp 41-50
  • A Safe Pair of Hands. Health and Safety International, September 2007 pp 19-33
  • ‘Control of substances hazardous to health (Fifth edition). Approved code of practice and guidance’, L5, ISBN 0-7176-2981-3, (HSE Books),
  • HSE website (leaflets and posters)
  • Published: 10th Jan 2008 in Health and Safety International