Handle with care – protective work gloves

With workplaces typically including a wide range of activities that could result in hand injuries, how do employers fulfil their legal obligation to control the underlying hazards? Australia and New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 2161.1:2000 for protective work gloves provides a good starting point. It recommends the development of a hand and arm protection programme.

In 2012, lacerations and puncture wounds to the hand or wrist accounted for more than 10% of the work-related injuries treated by New Zealand’s district health boards. The 19 000 cases that required hospital treatment are only, however, part of the picture. For every injury severe enough to require a response at this level, a large number of less serious incidents will have been dealt with by local GPs, on-site occupational health teams, or company first aiders.

An injury record like this makes it clear that hand protection should be a key focus for workplace safety management. 

Australia and New Zealand standard AS/NZS 2161.1:2000, while primarily focused on the selection, use, and maintenance of protective work gloves, provides a good starting point. It recommends the development of a hand and arm protection programme, specifically tailored to individual needs.

Consultation with those exposed to the potential for hand or arm injury – which could be everyone on site – is the key to this process. Workers’ understanding of both the hazards of the job and the associated levels of risk will help structure and prioritise hazard control measures.

As always, use the hierarchy of controls to assess each identified hazard. Wherever possible, hazards should be eliminated – perhaps by changing production processes, replacing machinery, or out-sourcing a production step to a specialist provider.

Whatever other safety measures are in place, however, there will be some situations where gloves will be essential, either in addition to other hazard controls, or as stand-alone protection where no other controls are viable.

Even if gloves have been used in these areas for some time, a detailed reassessment should be done to ensure the best possible match between the product’s features and the wearer’s needs.

This isn’t as easy as it may sound. Two gloves that claim identical levels of cut resistance for instance, may function quite differently in the work environment.

Glove ratings, which show how each style has performed in standardised tests that measure cut, abrasion, tearing, and puncture resistance are not necessarily the best guide as testing is done in controlled laboratory conditions which do little to replicate real life. In practice, other factors such as high or low ambient temperatures, humidity levels, variations in work tasks, and the personal preferences or additional needs of wearers will have a major influence on product selection. A high level of cut resistance for instance, may not be the best choice if the job also requires dexterity and good grip.

To get an optimal match between wearer and product it’s best to provide a selection of gloves with similar protection features for workers to trial on the job. This has the added bonus of allowing each wearer to find a glove that is comfortable for them. Manufacturers’ surveys show that 85% of wearers rate comfort as the most important issue when choosing a glove. Unless gloves are easy to wear and work with, there will always be a risk of staff working bare-handed.

To choose gloves for such a user-trial you will need to know:

  • what type(s) of protection are required? This may include different types of mechanical hazard (abrasion, puncture, cutting or tearing), and also possible insulation against heat, cold, electricity or vibration, and/or resistance to chemicals, dust, grit, liquids, and so on

  • what level of manual dexterity must be retained? The ability to grip securely, maintain flexibility, and manipulate small components may be critical to both safety and productivity
  • will disposable or reusable gloves be better? This will depend on the frequency and duration of wear, as well as on possible exposure to contaminants

  • what types of material are most suitable? AS/NZS 2161 provides guidance on this, but you should also consider the possibility of skin problems, such as allergies, or irritation caused by sweating

  • what style and fit is needed? In some cases, gauntlets or mittens will provide better protection than gloves. All hand protection must fit snugly as loose gloves can be an entanglement hazard and tight ones may lose cut resistance because fibres cannot roll when impacted by sharp objects.

Be aware that one type of glove may not address every need, so different types may be required for different activities. Before user trials begin, workers should be trained to correctly fit, remove, and care for the gloves, and to check for signs of wear so they know when replacement is needed. In some situations – usually when hazardous substances are handled – specialised protocols for glove disposal may also be necessary.

When the preferred glove option for each task has been identified, it is important to purchase a good stock of each selected style, in a range of sizes, so damaged or worn gloves can be replaced immediately. If reusable styles are selected, there should be clear guidelines to ensure that they are kept clean and stored appropriately when not in use.

This article by New Zealand Safety was first published in Safeguard magazine and is summarised here with permission. NZ Safety works with customers to explore risk reduction on site. They facilitate hazard identification and product trials to ensure selection of gloves meets both workers’ needs and job demands.

Buy AS/NZS 2161.1:2000

Published in consumer and occupational safety.