Innovations — development of new and improved materials and advancements in manufacturing processes — have made work and specialty gloves stronger, more flexible, more durable and more versatile than ever before. They more effectively protect hands against harsh, extreme-temperature, and high-risk work environments.

For the first time, biodegradable nitrile gloves, made of organic materials, break down more readily in landfills. New polymers, coatings and hybrid fabrics increase functionality, comfort and gripping ability, and lessened hand fatigue. Better technology is creating more waterproof, oil-impermeable and perspiration-preventive gloves to keep hands drier and cleaner; high-tech gloves for clean-room applications; more cut-resistant gloves made of Kevlar® coil fiber that don’t sacrifice performance; and more chemical-resistant gloves that handle grease, oil and extremely abrasive liquids such as acids, caustics and solvents.

Many manufacturers invest heavily in research and development to create custom-engineered gloves for very specific uses and jobs – such as contractors, carpenters, HVAC technicians, welders and electric utility workers. And they provide protection from a myriad of hazards, such as arc flash. Innovations allow workers to perform their tasks better, more safely, with more dexterity, and with gloves that last longer.

Hybrids and sustainability come to the fore

Hybrid fabrics, comprised of cutting-edge yarns and other fabrics, deliver lighter-weight gloves to protect workers against multiple dangers – from chemical substances to lacerations, cuts and punctures. Innovations includes thermal plastics and resins for pinch and impact protection and greater chemical and cut resistance, and smart fibers to detect certain chemicals.

Technology improvements make gloves feel better on the hands and are thinner and more touch-sensitive. Seamless, ergonomically-sound liners make gloves fit more snugly and grasp objects more evenly; have non-slip grips for better tactility when exposed to mud and oil; and greatly reduce hand fatigue in oily, chemically pervasive conditions. New gloves also eliminate irritation or allergic reactions associated with latex, nitrile or neoprene polymers.

Sustainability is a growing consideration, too. Some manufacturers use extended-life materials that reduce carbon emissions from manufacturing and delivery. Use of glove liners and coatings made from virgin raw materials cuts down on chemicals. Environmentally friendly bamboo fibers – which, unlike synthetic fibers aren’t petroleum-based – have made their way into the gloves’ shell. Demand is growing for post-consumer recyclate (PCR), which consumes less energy and natural resources, and for biopolymer fibers, made of starch, cellulose, and polylactic acid and that are found in disposable products.

Ultimately, the idea is to create one glove that can unfailingly handle as many critical tasks as possible.

Distinguish authentic innovation from imitation

Truly groundbreaking developments in the glove industry emerge from companies that track and anticipate industry needs, and reflect those changes with innovative R&D. As production and delivery processes become more sophisticated in segments such as oil and gas extraction and transport, chemical refining, mining, and medical laboratory processing and testing, glove manufacturers need to maximize performance and protection properties for designated operations. Innovative glove manufacturers recognize this is a constantly evolving imperative and provide the necessary R&D to keep pace with it.

Gilbert LeVerne, Jr., director of marketing for glove manufacturer SHOWA in the Americas and Oceania, describes this working definition of the process:

“Authentic innovation is creating a product that is unique, potentially patentable, and offers more protection and additional tactile sensitivity, while maximizing comfort for the user. It may also be founded in a chemistry that allows normally non-biodegradable gloves to be biodegradable in certain conditions, such as an active landfill.

“Copycats and knock-offs truly don’t understand this definition.”

Innovation comes from manufacturers whose multiple patents are the foundation for their products. A culture of creative and patient developmental design exists subject to constant challenge and testing under real-world conditions.

Development of the world’s first biodegradable, disposable nitrile glove came from a corporate commitment to environmental preservation and social responsibility, and rigorous intellectual property standards. Consultations with glove users identified the need to address allergic sensitivity to latex rubber.

Safety always is top-of-mind with innovative manufacturers. The National Safety Council reports that slices, cuts and lacerations account for almost 30 percent of time and productivity lost to work-related incidents, and 80 percent of those incidents involve hands – the most frequently injured body part in jobsite accidents, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some innovators provide customized safety solutions that optimize customers’ cost performance. You start with a comprehensive hazard assessment, identify risks in the workplace, and establish a benchmark to measure effectiveness over time. Service experts provide ongoing assistance to ensure the customer gets the most from the investment long term.

Companies that make personal protective equipment, including gloves, are taking a more holistic approach to improve sustainability. Every step of their product’s journey is improved, from raw materials and production, to transportation and logistics, customer usage and disposal. Imitators may continue to invest indefinitely in fossil materials such as polyester, polyamide and polyethylene. Innovators will use more natural fibers such as hemp and linen. They’ll also look to 100-percent post-consumer waste and recycled materials for glove packaging purposes.

Look for “additional” investments in cut, puncture and impact-resistant gloves and products for the oil and gas industry “despite the downturn in the energy sector,” according to LeVerne. Redundant product lines could be thinned out to make way for a new generation of innovations.

Authentic glove innovators, in the end, are unfailingly sensitive to emerging and shifting functional, convenience and safety challenges that gloves must meet. Their mission, as one industry leader puts it: “to give ordinary hands extraordinary abilities.”