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Hand Protection

Published: 10th Apr 2005


Better communication - improved glove selection

There is a great deal of confusion over the use of protective gloves throughout industry despite the efforts of glove manufacturers and COSHH legislation.

In a recent survey conducted by Sentinel Laboratories to over 2000 safety officers regarding the type of gloves used, it emerged that over 30% were recommending the wrong glove for applications within their establishments. Clearly there is a need for greater communication between the glove user, the specifier, the glove manufacturer and distributor. The recommendation to 'use a suitable protective glove' on propriety chemicals is used where the manufacturer is uncertain if there is a suitable glove or how the product will be used in the workplace.

Legal responsibilities to your staff

It is the responsibility of the employer to prevent employees coming into contact with substances hazardous to health. If it is not reasonably practicable for you to prevent their exposure to these substances, the law states that you must do what you can to control that exposure. Staff must be informed of the hazard, and provided with suitable personal protective equipment. Training in the correct use of the protective equipment must be provided. In addition, records should be kept to show the reasons for the choice of the protective equipment supplied, and specifications to show that the product will provide adequate protection. Personal protective equipment such as gloves, respirators, ear defenders and other safety equipment should not be shared; they are personal issue.

Legal responsibilities to your staff

Gloves are used for two basic reasons:

Product Protection

  • Bacteriological - food industry, Pharmaceutical industry
  • Chemical (perspiration) - Electronics Industry (Wafer Chips), Sheet Metal Assembly (visual appearance of finished product)
  • Personal Protection

    The glove industry produces a wide range of gloves to meet the varied requirements of industry. The type of protection required in different industries varies according to the process. In general the following needs to be considered:

    • Protection of the skin from chemicals
    • Protection against elevated or sub-ambient temperatures
    • Cut protection
    • Abrasion of the skin

    How to choose the correct glove

    A risk assessment is undertaken by the Safety Officer. This involves:

    a) Identification of the processes in the establishment

    b) Establishing which chemical and mixtures of chemicals are being used

    From the above information:

    a) Identify the risk. If the risk can be reduced or eliminated this should be done

    b) Assess the level of risk. The Directive 89/656/EEC specifies three levels of risk: minimal, intermediate or mortal/irreversible. Gloves are divided into three corresponding classes: simple, intermediate and complex design

    Minimal Risk is one which poses little or no risk to injury. For janitorial duties a glove of simple design is sufficient. An Intermediate Risk is one where there is a real risk of injury. Most gloves designed to withstand mechanical or chemical hazards are in this category. The highest level of risk is designated mortal or irreversible. This covers any risk which is potentially life threatening: handling contaminated materials or very aggressive chemical mixtures, fire-fighting or working with high voltage electricity.

    With the above in mind:

    a) Define the properties necessary in the glove to protect your employee. Is a glove required to provide physical protection? For example for handling glass or metals. Should the glove protect against aggressive chemicals or extremes of temperature? Or is a combination of characteristics required?

    b) Provide adequate instructions for the use of gloves: when to use, how to use, and when to change the glove

    c) Keep full records of your assessments and reasons for choosing a particular glove

    We will now look in more detail at the different kinds of applications and suitable gloves.

    What is required of a chemical resistant glove?

    This is determined by 3 factors:

    Penetration: the movement of a chemical through porous materials, seams, pinholes or other imperfections in a glove on a non-molecular level

    Permeation: the process by which some chemical molecules can pass into a glove material and diffuse through to the other side

    Degradation: a deleterious change in one or more properties of a protective glove material due to contact with the chemical. Exposed gloves may become stiffer and more brittle or softer and weaker. Generally there is a loss of shape

    When selecting a chemical resistant glove they should not show any penetration (the glove should be manufactured and inspected for pinholes and other imperfections to an Acceptable Quality Level (AQL) of 4.0 or lower). The glove should have a permeation breakthrough of greater than 8 hours and not degrade in contact with the chemical in question.

    The European Directive 89/686/EEC decrees that any gloves that need to provide limited protection against chemicals should be categorised in Category III or "Complex Design". Such gloves should be manufactured as per ISO9000 requirements or should be tested at least once a year by an independent Notified Body.

    In addition to the above requirements a chemical resistant glove may have to meet other requirements such as good dexterity, grip, comfort in use and/or abrasion/cut/tear/puncture resistance.

    Cut protection

    Food production and sharp knives are synonymous. In butchery and in the fish industry much of the work involves the use of incredibly sharp knives, with staff working at very high speed. The risk of injury in this situation is therefore very high if precautions to protect staff are not taken. There are a wide range of protective gloves available from chain mail sleeves and gloves which can be restrictive to the worker, to the newer lighter weight cut resistant fibres. Kevlar and more recently Spectra fibres (used in bullet proof vests) provide excellent cut resistance yet allow unrestricted movement. As these fibres are light weight they are comfortable to use even for extended periods.

    Thermal protection

    Extremes of heat and cold will rapidly cause damage to the skin. Protection is required for temperatures in excess of 60oC where a simple cotton glove is quite adequate. Temperatures in excess of 100oC require more effective insulation. Remember that in damp conditions the effects of heat are more pronounced on the skin, and in this case waterproof insulating gloves should be used. Where the skin is subject to cold conditions it can be quickly damaged due to chapping. Also the severity of cuts and abrasions may not be noticed until the skin warms up. Care must be taken to protect the hands in this case as the damage incurred can take a long time to heal.

    Combination gloves

    Where one glove will not provide the level of protection required, simply use gloves in combination. A glove liner of cotton or hollow cored fibres will keep the hands dryer when using heavy latex gloves. In the case of chemical protection, Safety 4H will effectively protect against the chemical hazard but need to be covered in a nitrile glove for abrasion resistance.

    Glove materials

    Coating Materials Generally recommended Versus
    Natural Rubber Bases, acids, alcohols, ketones and water based solutions
    Neoprene Oils, acids, alcohols, caustics and glycol ethers
    PVC or Vinyl Acids, bases, caustics and alcohols
    Nitrile Oils, aliphatic solvents, ethers, greases and animal fats
    Polyethylene Acids, bases and alcohols
    Polyurethane Acids, bases and aromatic solvents
    PVA (Polyvinyl alcohol) Aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons, chlorinated solvents, amines, esters, ethers and ketones
    Laminates Any chemical
    Butyl Glycol ethers, acids, alcohols, ketones, esters and gases
    Viton Aliphatic, aromatic and chlorinated solvents, alcohols and amines

    Technical resources

    What if a new chemical is being introduced to your company’s manufacturing process, or you simply want to check that the current gloves are offering optimum chemical protection. Where can you get the required information? Is a simple guide from glove suppliers offering data such as "poor", "fair" or "good" sufficient for your purpose? Who developed the guide and when? Does the guide state "based on published data"? In fact has the company done anything more than a literature search - can you trust the information?

    The first comprehensive published data on chemical resistance was done by Krister Forsberg in the early 1980s at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. This was for many years the "gold standard" and is the basis of the "Quick Selection Guide to Chemical Protective Clothing" and "Chemical Protective Clothing Permeation and Degradation Compendium" As valuable as these resources are, the pace of change in both the chemical industry and in the development of new chemically resistant gloves demands that more current data be utilised.

    Web based resources takes you to the Ansell Occupational Healthcare site, click on "Specware Online Chemical Hand Protection". This is an excellent site giving a wealth of technical information on gloves and a direct link to Health & Safety Information from the National Library of Medicine.

    Go to, click on "Occupational Healthcare" then "Chemical Application and Recommendation Guide". A good site but probably not as comprehensive as "Specware". is an excellent site from Best Manufacturing. Very easy to use, providing the optimum glove to use and easily accessed toxicology and risk information on the chemical.

    Visit and click on "Europe" then "UK", then "Safety Solutions", "Technical Information", "Which Garment or Glove is right for your Chemical". This is a large site and has excellent potential for thin gauge gloves - currently the information is limited.

    It is important to note that the information provided from all sites and from guides "is for information only". Testing is carried out under laboratory controlled conditions and as such will not always reflect the actual conditions of the end user. It is recommended that real-life testing be undertaken with any glove before making the final selection.

    If the chemical you require is not available on-line or in a guide, or if you have a complex mixture of chemicals, then contact the manufacturers’ technical department who will normally respond within 24 hours. All reputable glove manufacturers will be able to offer such advice via their technical helpline.

    Other sources of information

    There are a large number of suppliers of gloves:

    Distributors of Gloves. Many can give basic information on gloves and may give some valuable advice. However remember they may have 3000 other products in their range and cannot be specialists in them all!

    Manufacturers Representatives. They are always happy to provide a glove survey - they may only offer the "best fit from their range". However representatives from reputable companies have had considerable training in their range. In the event that they are not qualified to give a direct answer they have access to technical backup and are able to direct specific questions to the most appropriate person within their company. They will be able to arrange samples to enable on-site testing to ensure the suitability of a specific glove.

    Sales Literature of competitive ranges can be valuable - however glossy literature may be all they have to offer.

    Gloves - the price issue

    Established leading brand manufacturers have spent considerable time and resources in developing the advanced gloves currently on the market. Their expertise in blending fibre types to produce enhanced cut resistance to developing improved and new chemically resistant gloves is a direct result of team efforts from technologists in different specialities.

    Clearly the development cost is in part reflected in the prices of the product. It is our responsibility to ensure staff are adequately protected and for this reason I would always choose a product that has been properly researched and tested. Never compromise on quality or be led solely by price and cost savings. In this litigious society, if there is a problem with a glove, I want the backing of a reputable manufacturer!

    Protection from gloves!

    Having established the best glove for the application, what else should be considered for staff protection? Do you need protection from the glove?

    Skin Occlusion. Whilst gloves effectively protect the skin from a process, they are also totally enclosing the skin in a tight fitting environment which prevents the skin from being able to breathe naturally. When skin is enclosed within a glove the hands start to warm up, pores open and perspiration begins. The level of perspiration depends on the individual, the environmental temperature and the "heat barrier" of the glove. Clearly the thinner the glove the greater the heat interchange with the atmosphere. If the room temperature is reduced then the level of perspiration is correspondingly reduced.

    The effects of perspiration on the skin are:

    a) Enclosed in a glove the perspiration has nowhere to go, the hands are effectively bathed in perspiration for long periods. This leads to super-hydration of skin cells, resulting in porous, friable skin. Hands in this condition are easily damaged and care should be taken when washing and drying the hands. The use of a larger size glove can be of benefit. This will allow air to circulate around the hands, keeping the hands dryer for longer. Alternatively use a glove liner which will absorb the moisture. The liner can be replaced as necessary. Always use moisturising or after work lotions to maintain the skin’s condition.

    b) Perspiration can cause leaching of materials from a glove, which may cause dermatitis in the long term. In the case of latex gloves, latex protein, chemical accelerators, antioxidants and plasticisers may leach from the glove, all of which are skin sensitisers (in the medical profession as many as 15% of all medical staff have skin problems related to latex gloves).

    Disposable latex gloves from reputable manufacturers are washed several times during manufacture to reduce leachable components to acceptable levels. However, be warned, there are still products on the market which are produced to a price and where the protein levels are simply not acceptable. If in doubt ask for details of protein levels which should be in the region of 100 ug/g. Preferably use a powder free latex glove which has protein levels as low as 50ug/g, with other leachable components at levels which are undetectable.

    Wash room considerations - Hand washing

    Clearly good hygiene is important no matter what the industry. However, in pharmaceuticals, laboratory and hospitals it should be remembered that any chemical which may have been picked up whilst working at a bench prior to donning a glove may act as a skin sensitiser. This effect is enhanced by the chemical being enclosed in a glove in high humidity conditions. In addition, if changing gloves between samples or patients, it is a good idea to reduce the level of bacteria on the skin by washing, so reducing the possibility of high bacteria levels next to the skin.

    Remember that even if you are in a hurry to take that tea break it is necessary to thoroughly dry the skin to avoid chapping and damaging the skin. How often have you seen a colleague rinse their hands and dry them on their lab coat or overalls as they rush to tea? Use a soft hand towel if possible; alternatively use a good quality paper towel. In my experience few people use hot air dryers properly.

    Soap or skin wash

    If hand washing is required regularly throughout the day use as soft and gentle a soap as possible. Do you need to use an anti- bacterial soap? If not, do not use them because the commensal flora of the skin is removed, leaving the way for opportunistic bacteria to colonise the skin. Ideally use a soft soap (liquid skin wash) which should rapidly wash off the skin without leaving a residue. Pick a soap with a relatively low viscosity. Obviously, soap residue under a glove can become an irritant.

    After work lotions

    After work lotions (moisturising creams) should be used regularly to ensure the skin remains in good condition. When hands have been occluded for long periods within a glove, the skin tends to become porous and friable. The use of an after work lotion will help to repair the damage. Ideally use after work lotion every time the hands are washed.

    Barrier creams

    Some amazing claims are made for the efficacy of barrier products; not all will stand up to close scrutiny! In my opinion they are useful as an aid to cleaning the skin when doing dirty or dusty work (if a glove is used the skin is not contaminated). However if a barrier product is used under a glove you need to be certain the material will not affect the integrity of the glove – an oil base is likely to cause swelling of latex. However I am concerned about the effects of the barrier cream on the skin; in a humid glove an irritant dermatitis waiting to happen.

    After work lotions

    After work lotions (moisturising creams) should be used regularly to ensure the skin remains in good condition. When hands have been occluded for long periods within a glove, the skin tends to become porous and friable. The use of an after work lotion will help to repair the damage. Ideally use after work lotion every time the hands are washed.

    Glove liners

    Glove liners are available in cotton and silk. The aim of a liner is that perspiration is absorbed and wicked away. As was mentioned above the greater the heat barrier the greater the perspiration. It can be seen therefore that if the liner is relatively thick then the value of the liner is dubious. If a thin silk liner is used then the barrier effect is minimised and tactility unaffected.

    Imported skin problems

    Staff expect that their skin will be protected in the workplace but do they continue to look after their skin at home? Should we expect staff to use gloves when cleaning the kitchen with hard surface cleaners, or during washing up? How often have staff spent the weekend painting their home, liberally cleaning paint brushes and hands with white spirit? Damage caused to the skin at home predisposes the skin to dermatitis.

    To wrap things up

    In conclusion it can be seen that the choice of the correct glove to protect the skin is based initially on the risk assessment, the implementation of procedures for checking gloves and then ensuring that staff are correctly trained in the correct use of the product. The choice of the correct chemical protective glove is important to the well being of staff - an inappropriate glove can cause just as serious skin and health problems as no glove at all.

    Published: 10th Apr 2005 in Health and Safety International

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