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Comfort Key to Compliance

While workplace safety and hand protection are always paramount when selecting work gloves, comfort ranks close behind. Studies have shown that comfort influences decision makers selecting hand protection products. This makes sense because no matter how protective the safety gloves, they are ineffective if workers remove them due to issues with comfort.

So what are the features that make some industrial gloves more comfortable than others –
and why is comfort so important?

What is comfort?

While comfort may be defined as "freedom from pain, trouble or anxiety," when considering hand protection, we must take the concept of comfort a step further. Work gloves are usually considered comfortable when a worker is able to perform his or her tasks without removing the product.

The level of comfort required to complete a task may be application-specific. Workers within the construction industry, for example, often wear leather gloves because they perceive this product as providing a high level of comfort. When workers must splice wires or handle small parts such as nails, however, they typically find leather construction gloves are too bulky to perform these types of tasks. Their hands grow tired quickly and may sweat and cramp.

Leather gloves are often too uncomfortable for these types of fine-detail tasks so workers will remove them, exposing their hands to job-related hazards. Anytime workers remove their gloves for one task, the risk exists that they may not put them on again for another task, which increases their risk of getting hurt on the job.

What happens when safety gloves are uncomfortable?

When gloves are uncomfortable and/or inappropriate for the task, workers will remove them, which makes the worker non-compliant and increases the risk of injury. Hand protection compliance is less likely to be an issue for larger companies that have a safety officer or other personnel to oversee glove selection and use.

Smaller companies may encounter more problems with compliance because no one notices when workers wear gloves for two or three tasks and then remove them for the rest of the day. Then if a worker gets hurt, companies may assume they were wearing gloves and make an incorrect safety recommendation. In general, workers are more likely to keep gloves on when someone selects products that are comfortable and appropriate for the task – and when someone is there to confirm workers are using the product correctly on a continuing basis.

How important are ergonomics to glove comfort?

Various studies indicate that ergonomically designed hand protection can help reduce repetitive motion injuries (RMIs) and related musculoskeletal disorders – especially in older workers who may not be able to manipulate objects as well as in their younger years. This is why ambidextrous gloves are inappropriate for most tasks within a manufacturing facility. They are not designed in the shape of the hand and do not provide the support needed for most tasks.

Grip is an ergonomic factor of comfort because when gloves do not allow workers to securely grasp objects, individuals will apply more force, which can result in fatigue and RMIs such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. Special coatings are applied to some gloves that allow workers to effectively grasp wet and oily objects without applying a significant force.

What about fit?

To achieve a high level of comfort, gloves should fit and function like a second skin. As mentioned above, ambidextrous gloves are not designed for the hand's natural configuration and actually have the thumb in a neutral position in line with the other fingers, which can result in force against the thumb when the hands are moving during work. Properly fitted gloves follow the hand's natural configuration and can help reduce mechanical stress.

Glove fit is especially essential for older workers, who may suffer the effects of arthritis. Hand protection products that are too small can restrict movement and blood flow, lead to cramping, as well as fatigue and perspiration. Gloves that are too large may be bulky and significantly decrease dexterity, which can cause workers to strain when they perform certain tasks.

One size of glove will not fit all workers, which is why it is important to consider gloves that are available in half sizes as well as whole sizes.

Is moisture management a factor in glove comfort?

Workers with hot, sweaty hands are uncomfortable – whether they work inside or outdoors. Individuals are more likely to keep gloves on their hands when the products can breathe and offer features such as moisture-wicking capabilities, stay-dry linings and cooler fabrics.

Some engineered yarns and fabric structures ensure moisture management. Synthetic fibres such as polyester, polypropylene and nylon that are used extensively in active wear to manage moisture are also widely used in knitted gloves. Gloves with Dyneema® are often described as lightweight and having the ability to keep hands cool and dry.

Can certain glove manufacturing techniques/materials promote greater comfort?

Yes. Some glove manufacturers, for example, have the ability to plate the inside of a glove with a material that is different than that used on the outside. This technique is especially popular with engineered fabrics such as Kevlar® because it allows the glove manufacturer to provide a soft, nylon fabric inside the glove for greater comfort.

Advancements in knitting technology allow glove manufacturers to vary the density and stitching tension in areas where workers need more room, such as the knuckles and the back of the hand. Gloves that incorporate this type of varied stitching are more comfortable and provide the wearer with greater flexibility and dexterity.

Although thinner, lighter weight fabrics are often associated with greater comfort, workers will consider these fabrics to be comfortable only when they provide the level of protection needed for the application. Individuals employed in a metal fabricating plant, for example, will appreciate the thinner fabric only if it provides sufficient cut protection.

How can decision makers ensure safety gloves are comfortable for workers to wear?

First, look for descriptions and terms in the product literature that indicate the gloves will provide a certain level of comfort. Work gloves with a high level of dexterity and tactile sensitivity are more likely to provide a higher level of comfort for workers in the automotive industry, who must be able to pick up and handle the small pieces that are part of an assembly operation.

Industrial gloves that offer protection from the cold are more comfortable for workers performing tasks in a refrigerated environment, while products with a nitrile coating will enhance comfort for workers handling wet and oily parts.

Second, conducting a product trial among a cross section of workers is important because a single work glove style is unlikely to provide all of the attributes workers need to perform a variety of tasks. Workers should also receive training about the products they are using and their protective advantages, so they can perform tasks with a higher level of confidence.

In conclusion, protective gloves are like athletic shoes – they provide certain performance characteristics for specific tasks. Just as an athlete wants shoes with performance characteristics that will enable him to win a race or jump higher and longer, the plant worker wants comfortable gloves that will allow him to perform various tasks safely and comfortably at a productive pace.

By Tom Draskovics
Ansell Industrial

- August 2011