Although PPE is considered the last line of defence, and rightly so, it is critically important for the workplace to have it readily available. But why is a problematic risk control so often used, documented as a control measure in many risk assessments, and has workplaces installing numerous ‘mandatory’ signs indicating that it is necessary to wear?
If I take you back to December 1998 in the UK, on a normal working day in a pine furniture manufacturing facility where the heating is ineffective because of the -5°C weather, an operative working on a ‘spindle moulder’, a stationary woodworking machine in which a vertically oriented spindle drives the cutter, heads to mill profiles on wood. In doing so, the operative is guiding a piece of wood, using his hands, pushing the wood against the back plate and along through the spindle, which is giving the ornate look to the piece of timber. The wood kicks, the operative pushes against the timber, his hand slips and moves into the path of the spindle moulder which, running at 3000rpm, commenced to take slices of fingers off his right hand. The operative was unable to pull his hand away because he was wearing gloves, just like the risk assessment required or advised, and the material of the glove was entwined in this revolving mechanism, forever drawing his hand in.
The operative lost his little finger to the knuckle, his third finger to just above the knuckle and the second finger to the joint, but why? Other than some considerations in relation to the work equipment that are not pertinent to this story, the operative was wearing gloves, however, these were ineffective because the gloves used as PPE were not suitable (they were a wool style glove to keep hands warm). The operative, in wearing gloves, had contributed to the severity of the injuries sustained as the gloves offered no protection against the hazards that were encountered.
A conflict of standards
The above story is over 25 years old, with much having since evolved in the health and safety world. However, not all hand protection is equal.
Whilst many of you reading this article will be aware of American National Standards Institute (ANSI), you may be surprised that America has no overall standard for hand protection, somewhat bemusing when you consider the extent of hazards which range from chemical to mechanical, fire to vibration, and others in-between. Europe on the other hand (pardon the pun), since the turn of the millennium recognised the need for a for more stringent approach to hand protection.
European Standards (abbreviated EN “European Norm”) are technical standards drafted and maintained by CEN (European Committee for Standardization). In 2003 the first ‘standard’ for ‘protective gloves’ was issued, titled EN 420:2003 – General Requirements for Protective Gloves and later added to with A1:2009 (now known as EN420:2003 + A1:2009). The standard is designed to ensure that gloves are comfortable and don’t themselves harm the users. As such, the standard states the following:
- Gloves must not adversely affect users’ hygiene or health. For example, they should be pH neutral and chromium (chrome VI) content has to be minimal
- Any substance used in gloves known to cause allergies must be stated on packaging – a specific test for latex content should be undertaken
- Seams shouldn’t reduce the performance of gloves
- Gloves need to be sized using the common European hand size and their effect on finger dexterity has to be assessed
So, already Europe has ‘standardised’ the key fundamentals of hand protection with an underlying concept, that it doesn’t increase the risk to an individual’s safety or health. However, this standard is really the underlying principle to which all gloves shall adhere that are for the European market.
“gloves must not adversely affect users’ hygiene or health”
Testing and certification
As stated previously, Europe looked across a range of hazards and formulated standards for delivering hand protection. The most common standard that I have come across and specified within the mitigating controls for my risk assessments is the EN 388:2016 – Protective Gloves Against Mechanical Risks (America has ANSI/ISEA 105-2016 which addresses the classification and testing of hand protection for specific performance properties related to mechanical protection). These are far-reaching standards, given the number of foreseeable ‘mechanical risks’ e.g. cuts, tear, puncture, abrasion; and thus gloves manufactured to this standard (EN388) hold the above logo, to denote the glove’s level of performance against the respective physical hazards.
As in Fig 1, EN 388 includes a series of up to six separate tests which measure the gloves’ level of resistance to abrasion, cutting, tearing, puncture and where relevant, impact.
- The abrasion resistance of gloves is determined by how quickly a glove’s fabric wears through when it’s rubbed using a Martindale Abrasion Tester
- The two blade cut resistance tests assess how well gloves protect against sharp objects. The Coup test has its limitations, so it is recommended to refer only to the ISO 13997 result whenever selecting gloves for medium or high risk cut environments e.g. heavy construction/engineering
- Tear resistance is determined by the degree of force needed to rip the glove’s fabric
- The puncture resistance test measures the force needed to pierce the gloves’ fabric using a nail/stylus. If protection against sharper points such as needles is needed, then refer to the needlestick test result ASTM F2878
- The impact resistance test determines how much impact energy a glove dissipates. This test is optional, as only gloves specifically designed with impact resistant properties will reduce forces to a safe level
EN338 is only one of a series of standards, with the next being EN 374:2016 – Protective Gloves Against Dangerous Chemicals and Micro-Organisms. This standard, formally known as BSEN ISO 374:2016+A1:2018 (known as EN 374 in short) is a worldwide standard for gloves that protect wearers when working with harmful chemicals and/or micro-organisms, making sure the individual is protected against irreversible health damage, and possible legal consequences for the company. The testing of this glove is totally different to that of the previous standard we have discussed, in that a simple air or a water leakage test measures a glove’s resistance to penetration – the flow of test chemical through its seams, porous materials, pinholes or other imperfections in the glove. A number of gloves need to be tested from a given batch to demonstrate consistent protection, this a critical aspect in relation to chemical protection, and manufacturing control is essential in the production of the glove.
“no glove will protect against all substances”
If a glove passes both the air and water penetration test, then it can also claim protection against bacteria and fungi. However, protection against viruses needs to be proven using an additional test. Gloves need to demonstrate no detectable transfer of a surrogate virus – Phi-X174 bacteriophage – through the glove material, as described in ISO 16604 (again an International Standard).
Referring back to the EN374 element, it is important to remember the full standard’s title is BS EN ISO 374:2016+A1:2018 and the standard is currently divided into five levels, each standing for a specific type of testing and application:
- BS EN ISO 374-1:2016+A1:2018 – Performance requirements for chemical risks
- BS EN 374-2:2019+A1:2018 – Determination to resistance to penetration
- EN 16523-1:2015+A1:2018 (formerly EN 374-3:2003) = Determination of material resistance to permeation by chemicals, permeation by liquid chemical under conditions of continuous contact
- BS EN 374-4:2019+A1:2018 – Determination of resistance to degradation by chemicals
- BS EN ISO 374-5:2016+A1:2018 (+ ISO16604 / Method B) – Protection against bacteria, fungi and virus
The abbreviations EN 374-1 up to 374-5 are also often used for each level within the standard.
Protection from substances
The most effective and reliable way to prevent skin problems from substances in the workplace is to design and operate processes to avoid contact with those harmful substances (this is actually part of the hierarchy of control). If we can take all the steps to achieve this before resorting to the use of gloves as a means of protection, then all well and good, remembering PPE (protective gloves) tend to be less effective than other control measures.
For substances that are key factors to consider when selecting the glove, these are:
- Substance to be handled
- Any other hazards
- Duration of potential contact
- Size and comfort (of PPE)
- The task itself
For such critical protective equipment, gloves differ in design, material and thickness. No glove will protect against all substances and no glove will protect the wearer against a specific substance forever. It is important to engage with glove manufacturers as they usually produce charts to show how well their gloves perform against different substances, using three key terms of breakthrough times, permeation rate and degradation. The following is an indicative explanation of each term:
Breakthrough times is the time the chemical takes to permeate through the glove material and reach the skin. Permeation is a process by which a chemical passes through a material without going through pinholes or pores or other visible openings; and tells you have long you can wear the glove.
Permeation rate is the amount that then permeates through. Higher the rate, the more chemical moves through the glove (low rates are best for wearers).
Degradation indicates the deterioration of the glove’s material on contact with a substance (again you want the wearer to have an excellent or very good degradation rating).
Heat and flame protection
The three standards discussed so far in this article are what I consider the most common, certainly in my experience as a safety practitioner. The others, that I have had little exposure to are:
- EN 407: Gloves for Heat, Flame and Fire Protection
- EN 511: Gloves for Cold Weather and Water Protection
- EN 455: Gloves for Healthcare Professionals
- EN 12477: Gloves for Welding
- EN 60903: Gloves for Electricity Protection
- EN 10819: Gloves for Anti-Vibration
As you can see, they are covering a range of hazard/sectors. For example the EN407 standard EN 407 – Flame, Heat and Fireproof Gloves, details the levels of protection against fire and extreme heat. Gloves accredited under EN 407 offer protection against the following:
- Contact Heat
- Convective Heat
- Radiant Heat
- Small Splashes of Molten Metal
- Large Splashes of Molten Metal
More occupations than you might think include exposure to flame and heat, making thermal protection of prime importance. EN407 is recognised as an international standard for how well gloves protect from heat and/or flame (aka ‘thermal risk’). The standard was developed in Europe, which explains the use of Celsius over Fahrenheit.
Heat and flame protection on the job may seem fairly basic, but the dangers are actually multi-faceted. This is why EN407 is made up of six unique glove tests, each graded on a scale of zero to four. While the methods and performance levels depend on the field of application, one thing holds true: the higher the EN407 score the better.
Below is the same table you will find on every single EN 407 glove listing on our site. As you can see, the example gloves below score well for contact heat, allowing the user to handle material with a temperature of up to 250°C for up to fifteen seconds.
So, a glove label, which denotes the following EN 407: 221X1X provides the following level of protection against the hazard:
Got all that? Now let’s take a closer look at the six glove performance tests. Note that a glove can be tested to all of these tests or just one.
1. Limited flame spread
Because the presence of flame is inherently dangerous, this test assesses a glove’s flammability and charring behaviour after being exposed to a direct flame.
The test works by utilising a controlled chamber, where the glove is exposed to the flame for three seconds. The same test is performed for 10 seconds. After-flame and afterglow times are logged and the glove is inspected for any damage or exposed seams.
2. Contact heat resistance
This tests thermal resistance by measuring the rate of temperature rise, or, in other words, how long gloves keep heat and flame at bay.
Note: If a glove is not tested and certified to LFS, this test is indicated by the above icon with three wavy lines. This means the glove has protection against heat without flame.
The test works by placing samples on four plates heated from 100°C to 500°C. Performance is determined by how long it takes the temperature on the side opposite the sample to rise 10°C. This is known as the threshold time. Gloves need to withstand the increasing temperature of maximum 10°C for at least 15 seconds for a pass at a given level. Tests can be performed on any area of the glove that is intended to be exposed to contact heat (if explicitly stated on the packaging). If no area is designated, the rating is on the palm.
3. Convective heat resistance
This test exposes gloves to a flame heat source, with the glove being spaced well away from flame, never making contact. Different surfaces of the glove are tested.
This test works by exposing the back of hand and palm samples to a heat source in a controlled chamber. The goal is to determine how long it takes to raise the inner temperature of the glove 24°C.
4. Radiant heat resistance
This tests the back of the glove to ensure materials can resist extreme heat radiating through the glove’s various materials. In conducting the tests, glove samples are exposed to a radiant heat source, and much like Convective Heat Resistance test, the goal is again to assess how long it takes the inners temperatures to rise 24°C.
5. Resistance to small splashes of molten metal
This test is designed to assess hand protection when working with small amounts of molten metal. Welding is a good example where this glove would be widely used.
The test works in have a controlled chamber where two palm and two back-of-the-hand samples are exposed to small drops of molten metal, such as copper. Protective performance is based on the number of drops needed to raise the temperature by 40°C on the opposite side of the sample. The cuff is also tested if composed of different materials than palm/back-of-hand.
6. Resistance to large splashes of molten metal
For this test, PVC foil is used to simulate how skin would be affected inside the glove.
The test works through molten metal, such as iron, is poured over a glove sample that, in turn, is placed over PVC foil. After each of the three tests, the foil is assessed for changes.
“in not being specific we are exposing the wearer to uncontrolled hazards”
To conclude, the gloves you select should be appropriate to the hazards and risks encountered. In determining your chosen protection, you should consider the type and duration of contact, consider the user (for size and comfort) and the task. This will then provide you with the knowledge and information for you to be specific in the detail on what glove to adopt in order to protect against the risks.
Many management systems will have a PPE risk assessment; however, I would personally suggest that the detail in your activity-specific risk assessment identifies any PPE and the standard to which needs to be adopted to protect the wearer. So, if you have a cut hazard in your operation with a control identified as wear ‘hand protection/ safety glove’, identify the specifics as illustrated in this example below:
Risk = Cuts
Controls = Safety Glove
Solution = EN388 Cut Level 5 / D to be worn
The wearer then needs to ensure he obtains the correct standard of glove and the correct size. In not being specific we are exposing the wearer to uncontrolled hazards, such as in my initial example, wearing gloves for the wrong hazards. So it is important to be specific within the risk assessment, as you can set the operatives up to fail and sustain injury to which they would rightly believe they are protected against.