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The Headache That Starts in the Hands

Published: 10th Apr 2003


European industry is suffering a severe headache - and it is all to do with the hands.

As levels of workplace injury remain worryingly high, and with hands placed directly in the firing line, employers are being placed increasingly under the spotlight to reduce the threat of workplace injury. Daren Chambers looks at the extent of the problem and highlights the issues that need to be considered when selecting appropriate hand protection.

Accidents at work are costing firms across the EU many millions of Euros in lost productivity, management time and insurance claims. When Euro-wide workplace injury statistics were last combined, it highlighted that between them, firms operating in the EU lost an estimated 148 million working days in 1998 and 1999 as a result of accidents at work.

Despite the fact that 37 per cent of reported injuries in the EU result in the sufferer taking less than three days off work to recover, the reality is that the average amount of time spent away from the workplace by individuals recovering from injury remains a staggering 20 days.

As is often the case, workplace injuries are not career or life threatening, with 93.3% of people returning to the same job after an accident in the EU. These figures, should however serve to highlight that a great deal can still be done to reduce the amount of often-avoidable accidents in the workplace.

Research carried out by the UK's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) shows that hand injuries as a whole regularly account for 35-40 per cent of industrial accidents throughout the EU. Given that an estimated 80% of workplace injuries could be avoided, even reducing injury levels by a conservative 30% would save companies operating within the EU over 44 million working days.

The two industry sectors that present the greatest risk to its work force across the EU are the fishing and construction industries according to published injury statistics. Both sectors, which rely heavily on the hands of its workers as one of the main tools in the industry, report more than twice the incidence of injuries compared to normal industry sectors.

One often over-looked way of significantly reducing the number of workplace injuries is to invest time and effort into addressing the hand protection issue. For most people, their ability to work and earn a living relies on their hands being healthy. Yet day after day, people abuse them by exposing them to hazardous situations or substances that, if not protected against properly, could leave them injured.

As well as ever-tightening legislation coming to bear on employers, many countries are now seeing a significant growth in litigation resulting from being injured at work. This is largely to do with the explosion of law firms acting on a no win, no fee basis asking for people who have been previously injured to seek compensation.

Where hand protection is concerned, there is no excuse for ignorance. The hands must be adequately protected where there is risk of damage to the skin or injury to the hands itself.

When determining what type of gloves are required to protect staff, there are some very straightforward steps that can be taken to reduce the potential for injury and ensure that the right hand protection for the tasks being undertaken are provided.

Identifying Hand Hazards

The first step in the hand protection programme is to recognise the different dangers that lie in wait for staff. These can be largely grouped into three types - chemical, mechanical and thermal.

Chemical hazards - Skin that is exposed to chemicals can become irritated, burnt or ulcerated. Chemicals can break down the skin's defence and enter the blood stream with dangerous and sometimes fatal results.

The problem is that many common chemicals, such as water are deemed safe. Yet even water strips the skin of its natural protective oils. Some chemicals are undisguised, with clearly defined dangers. Others are not so obvious and extreme care and vigilance should be taken.

One of the main problems about chemical hazards is that they do not always cause immediate harm. It is the cumulative exposure over months, even years which causes irreversible damage. It is not unusual for workers to handle metalworking fluids for up to 15 years without apparent ill effect, but later suffer chronic skin disease such as dermatitis.

So where chemical hazards are concerned 'prevention' is the key word. Anyone handling chemicals should be provided with the appropriate hand protection - based upon the substances they are handling and the length and level of exposure to the hazard.

Mechanical Hazards - Mechanical hazards are those that involve a cut, crush or general abrasion. It can range from heavy production line machinery to needles used in healthcare. Sharp tools are an obvious threat but there is also the danger of the razor sharp edges of raw materials such as sheet metal as used in car manufacturing.

As well as major cuts, there is also the danger of micro damage to the skin. This means absorption of substances into the skin that is barely noticeable, causing long-term harm. Typically, Swarf produced in metal-working, minute particles in coolants on machine tools and punctures from handling glass fibre are examples of the potential entry routes into the skin.

Thermal Hazards - Many trades often expose the hands to thermal hazards, typically fierce heat generated in glass and steel works, hot steam and high temperatures generated in kilns in potteries. But thermal hazards also include extreme cold environments - especially relevant for those working in frozen food areas and cold stores.

Extremes of temperature attack the natural oils in the skin that help to keep it supple, resulting in dry, cracked skin that is open to infection. Working in freezing temperatures can also numb the hands, reducing flexibility and grip which can lead to serious accidents, especially important to consider for the construction industry.

Assessing the Hazards - Chemical

When assessing hand risk from chemical hazards in the workplace, it is essential to look at all types of chemicals - including the seemingly harmless ones. The key to proper assessment is to really know what substance or substances staff are dealing with. This can be done by reviewing the information contained in safety data sheets.

These safety data sheets are required by law from chemical manufacturers and will greatly help to determine which glove material should be selected to produce the right levels of protection as well as allowing you to determine the expected life expectancy of the gloves.

The watchword when assessing chemical hazards is caution. A glove which has been used to handle chemicals may look brand new but actually offer no protection because it has already been contaminated by chemical molecules that have diffused into the inside of the glove. This can occur even when there are no punctures or openings in the glove material.

This effect is known as Permeation. Permeation levels comprise of two measurements: Breakthrough Time, measured in minutes and Permeation Rate, which is the rate at which the chemical transmits through the glove after breakthrough.

In addition to Permeation, on contact with certain chemicals a glove may lose one or more of its original physical qualities. Exposed gloves may become brittle or softer and weaker. Generally a loss of shape or swelling will occur. This is called Degradation.

As different chemicals have varying effects on gloves it has been necessary to develop a range of materials to protect against a growing number of hazardous substances.

What follows is not a definitive guide, but a description of the type of glove materials used and their durabilities.

Latex: Generally speaking natural rubber provides excellent resistance to aqueous chemicals such as acids and alkalis. Thicker latex products can also provide a measure of resistance to specific solvents. Take into account that different latex compounds will provide varying levels of protection irrespective of thickness. The other advantage of latex is that it has a high level of comfort, elasticity and dexterity. However it is important to remember when selecting latex gloves to specify ones that have low protein levels, minimising the risk of staff developing latex allergy.

Nitrile (synthetic rubber): Provides good resistance to oil based chemicals and is excellent for protection against petrol's, oils and lubricants together with many solvents. However, nitrile rubber is prone to swelling in some solvents, thus reducing the physical strength of the product and lessening the levels of protection.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): PVC can provide chemical resistance to aqueous chemicals but protection against solvents is often limited because the plasticiser used to make the product flexible is extracted by many solvents. This causes contamination of the solvent being used and the glove may begin to crack.

Neoprene TM : Has similar comfort and conformable features as natural rubber but with added resistance to petrol, oil and lubricants.

Assessing the Hazards - Thermal

When assessing the correct glove choice where thermal hazards are concerned, the type and length of exposure to the hazard must be taken into consideration. Thermal hazards include:

Contact heat - when a hot product is handled as in fresh injection moulded items within the plastics industry.

Convective heat - when the air is at high temperature although no direct contact takes place. Also applicable to cold air, whether within a cold store or outside in a naturally cold environment.

Radiant heat - the type of heat emitted from the source. Radiant heat is a major hazard within the steel and glass industries where reflective heat resistant gloves are commonplace.

Contact - the handling of freezing objects, common in the frozen food and food retailing industries. Typical glove materials used to protect against thermal hazards include: Kevlar® brand fibre - This DuPont material has been used in aerospace to offer the heat resistance necessary for re-entering the earth's atmosphere. Kevlar® brand fibre is also used in the manufacturing of suits and gloves where extremes of temperature are a problem.

Leather: A natural material generally providing good protection against the cold as long as the gloves do not get wet. Some specialist leathers can offer limited water resistance. Leather is also used in the composition of heat resistant gloves such as welding gloves as it does not melt or burn, unlike other synthetic materials.

Cotton: Another natural material, cotton provides moderate resistance to heat and cold. In order to give adequate protection, the material has to be thick which can impede dexterity.

Aluminised gloves: These help to reflect the heat and can be found in foundries and other workplaces where products reach high temperatures. Materials which can be aluminised include Kevlar® brand fibre and leather.

Assessing the Hazards - Mechanical

Due to the many and varied mechanical hazards in the workplace, it is difficult to protect staff against all hazards encountered during the working day. The nature and severity of each hazard must have a direct bearing on the choice of glove. Traditionally, leather has been used to protect against many of the mechanical hazards in the workplace. This material is now being joined by modern, high performance materials. Typical glove materials used to protect against mechanical Depending on formulation, natural rubber can offer abrasion, tear and cut resistance.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) (on a fabric liner): PVC can offer abrasion and puncture resistance and, if thick enough, some cut protection. Generally, tear resistance is poor.

Leather: A natural material modified by a tanning process to give a range of properties, leather gloves come in a vast range of thicknesses and styles. These vary widely in their protective capabilities from specialised to basic general purpose gloves.

Beware Complacency

Even after the right glove for the job has been selected, regular re-assessments are vital as changes in working practices can undermine the effectiveness of the recommended protection. Once the hazards have been assessed with the performance demands of the glove, and once all relevant health and safety data has been taken into account, there are other issues to be considered when choosing the right glove for the job. It is vitally important to balance selecting the right glove to protect against the hazard/hazards with their suitability for the job being undertaken. A glove that is uncomfortable or does not provide the right levels of dexterity required for the job is likely to remain unworn by staff. Image Therefore, consideration should be given to:

Grip - A lack of grip can in itself cause a hazard, particularly where heavy, smooth objects are being carried. If the object is dropped or slips out of the hands, a crush injury or even burns from spilling a harmful chemical can result.

Dexterity - This can be a fundamental priority in many jobs. It is self defeating if a glove has to be removed to carry out a job. The gloves chosen should fit closely to offer protection without compromising the sense of touch and freedom of movement to carry out the job properly.

Comfort - Gloves must be comfortable or the wearer will be tempted to remove them. However the desire for comfort must be balanced against the need for the right level of protection. Most reputable manufacturers will offer gloves in a range of hand sizes to suit most needs.

Length - The length of the glove may be important when the hazard threatens the forearm. However, the longer the glove the less the air can circulate around the hand which can reduce comfort.

Seek Advice Where Possible Good advice from reputable manufacturers is crucial when protection is needed for handling chemicals, as it is the combination of chemicals used that may be more hazardous than the single element. It is advisable to supplement chemical manufacturers' data with direct advice from a glove manufacturer. Reputable firms have vast reserves of knowledge with technical hotline services geared up to answer most glove enquiries.

European Standards

All Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in the European Community is required to carry a CE mark as a sign that the product complies with the essential requirements of Directive 89/686/EEC. These are minimum standards however and do not mean a product is fit for a particular purpose. PPE falls into three categories:- o Simple design for minimal risks only, where the consequences of not wearing a glove are of minimal risk and the consequences of such action is reversible. o Intermediate design - where the broad use of the glove is indicated on the packaging by a pictogram.

To carry the pictogram, the glove will have undergone type testing by an accredited testing house and been approved by a notified body. o Complex design - for irreversible or mortal danger. Gloves in this category are tested against one or more hazards and the technical file certified by a notified body. The gloves must be manufactured under a recognised Quality Assurance procedure.

So Who Is Responsible?

The reality is that both employer and employee should be responsible for preventing hand injuries at work. For the employer, the law stipulates that they are duty-bound to assess all working conditions that can expose staff to hazards and ensure appropriate action is taken. This includes informing staff of workplace risks to hands and protecting them by ensuring those risks are avoided through substance substitution and the use of correct personal protective equipment.

This means providing the right glove for the job - a good quality glove that protects against workplace hazards, fits well and is comfortable to wear. The employee has the responsibility of asking for and wearing the right glove for the job at all times and to look after those gloves properly. Ultimately, everyone has to take responsibility. There can be no short cuts. Hand protection is not a luxury but a necessity to safeguard our health and livelihoods.

Published: 10th Apr 2003 in Health and Safety International

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