Safety Gloves and Skin Protection at Work
You may use many tools at work, but some of the most important tools you use are your hands. Therefore, it’s important to properly protect your hands from skin injuries on the job site. Skin injuries like cuts or punctures and health problems like dermatitis can occur in a wide variety of industries, not just the industries you would expect.
Hand injuries and skin problems can arise in more dangerous workplaces like construction sites and manufacturing facilities, but they also commonly occur in industries like health care, hairdressing and food service. As a result, many employers need to be aware of these hazards, and both employers and employees need to educate themselves about the best ways to prevent dangerous situations.
Skin Injuries and Disorders
Many types of skin problems can occur in the workplace. Let’s take a look at some of the common ones:
- Cuts & Punctures – Sharp pieces of machinery, the blades of tools or needles can easily damage the skin on your hands. While many of these wounds can be cleaned and covered with a Band-Aid, a deep enough wound could require stitches or surgery.
- Abrasion – An abrasion is an injury on the surface of the skin that occurs when something scrapes the epidermis, the outer layer of the skin.
- Thermal Issues – Working with very hot or very cold objects can cause burns and impede movement.
- Chemical Burns – Some substances in the workplace can burn the skin when encountered in certain forms (as liquids, solids or gases). Cement, for example, can cause burns because it has a high pH value, and employees may not even realize the burns are occurring until it’s too late to prevent further damage.
- Dermatitis – The skin can become red, inflamed and irritated as a result of working around certain substances (ranging from cement to hair dye) in the workplace. “Irritant contact dermatitis” occurs when something in the work environment irritates the skin and it can lead to pain, blisters, itching and many other unpleasant symptoms. Some people have an immune response to substances in the workplace, which is called “allergic contact dermatitis”.
These hazards are all very different so they require different kinds of skin protection. Just as no one type of respirator can protect from all air contaminants, no glove can protect from all substances and tasks that could injure the hand.
How to Select the Right Gloves
Like most PPE, gloves need to be appropriate for the task and hazards present and they need to fit the wearer properly. When examining a task to find an appropriate glove, consider whether the task involves any hazardous chemicals or sharp objects. Even chemicals that may not seem dangerous can irritate the skin over time or in individuals who are sensitive to the chemicals in question. Choosing gloves designed for these specific hazards is therefore critical.
Types of Gloves
According to ChooseHandSafety.org, an informational resource that provides advice for selecting gloves and tools, the following types of gloves are available for workers:
- Leather – Leather gloves protect against abrasion.
- Cut-resistant – These gloves can be made from a variety of materials including natural and synthetic fibers and can prevent against cuts, lacerations and in some cases punctures.
- Chemical-resistant – Chemical-resistant glove materials also vary and include things like latex, nitrile and other rubbers and synthetic materials. These gloves can help prevent dermatitis and chemical burns.
- Insulated – These gloves contain extra layers of protection to keep the hands safe in cold or hot environments (or when touching cold or hot objects).
- Anti-vibration – While vibration is not specifically a skin issue, vibrating tools can cause nerve damage in the hands, and this type of glove can help alleviate that problem.
Some gloves can serve dual purposes and protect against more than one kind of hazard, but that is not always the case. If two hazards are present in the workplace—perhaps sharp objects and chemicals—multiple gloves might need to be worn. This can sometimes impede a person’s dexterity, though, so try to eliminate hazards if possible to avoid the need for multiple kinds of gloves.
In some situations a glove liner may also be necessary, according to the Institut de Recherche Robert-Sauvé (IRRST) in Quebec, Canada, which studies ways to prevent industrial accidents and occupational diseases. For example, a metal mesh glove might be required to prevent cuts and lacerations, but these gloves can irritate the skin, so a cotton glove liner is worn inside the metal glove for comfort.
Special Considerations for Chemical Hazards
When dealing with chemicals, you should assess two things. First, think about which chemical you are using and how long a glove will protect against that chemical. Second, look at how different glove materials will protect against the chemical in question. A neoprene glove, for example, might hold up better to a certain chemical than a nitrile glove. Consult the chemical’s label and safety data sheet for additional information. Keep in mind that gloves break down over time, so gloves may need to be replaced frequently if chemicals reduce the resistance of a glove.
ChooseHandSafety.org offers a helpful list of common chemicals and the types of hazards they pose to the skin. Oklahoma State University also provides a chemical guide that lists how long it will take a particular chemical to break through a specific kind of glove material. These documents can help you understand the chemical hazards you’re dealing with.
Additional Glove Selection Resources
If you’re looking for information about what specific work gloves to select for a particular occupation and task, there are some helpful resources out there for you.
The IRRST put together an interactive selection tool that suggests glove options for preventing cuts, lacerations, abrasions and punctures. Users can search either by glove model or by criteria (such as how much resistance the glove needs to have against cuts or whether it needs to be waterproof).
ChooseHandSafety.org also has a tool to help find gloves specifically for workers in the construction industry. Users can select the craft being performed from a dropdown menu (such as cement, marble or tile work) and then the specific job (like cleaning, installing or polishing). The tool will then offer recommendations (ranked 1-4).
Tips for Donning and Doffing Gloves
A glove does no good if an employee puts a hand in it that’s already contaminated with the hazards of the worksite. It’s important to follow specific steps when putting on gloves to avoid this kind of situation.
First—and this may seem obvious—make sure the glove is the right size. Gloves need to fit a person’s palm and fingers so no skin is exposed. If it doesn’t fit, it also could interfere with a worker’s job. Next, make sure the hands are clean (wash them if necessary). Make sure the gloves are clean, too, and check for holes or wear and tear. Never wear a damaged glove, as it will be unlikely to provide adequate protection.
When removing gloves, be careful not to touch the dirty portions of the gloves with your fingers. Follow the instructions in this video to remove gloves that have touched chemicals without contaminating your hands. Dispose of one-time use gloves in the trash. If the gloves will be reused, wash them with soap and water (or according to given instructions) and store them in a bag or other place where they will stay clean.
Keep Skin Healthy
Wearing proper hand protection at work can help prevent many injuries and illnesses. To provide even more protection for their skin, workers should practice good hygiene both in and out of the workplace. Washing hands regularly can help remove contaminants from the skin before they’re absorbed. Some people—especially construction workers who work with cement—would benefit from using a slightly acidic hand soap to help maintain the normal pH of the skin (which is somewhat acidic) to prevent dermatitis.