Every year work gloves and sleeves improve to offer stronger protection with higher cut resistance and better insulation from heat. And while these innovations are crucial to safety, another equally important aspect of protection is comfort. A glove that workers find comfortable is a glove they’ll wear consistently – the best A9 glove on the market can’t prevent lacerations if it’s in your worker’s pocket.
John Hanks has been in the EHS field for nearly a decade, including time at a large aerosol can manufacturer. Workers there handled steel sheets with very sharp edges. “They were basically handling a four-sided knife,” he said, adding that even with such a dangerous job, “one of my biggest uphill battles was getting people to keep gloves on their hands at all times and to use the proper gloves.” Hanks said his workers wanted gloves that were “not too thick and not too thin. If they were too thin, they’d get needle pokes through the gloves from protruding objects. If they were too thick, they couldn’t feel what they were handling. Then they wouldn’t wear them at all for some tasks and we’re right back to square one.” Hanks estimated that, even with lighter gloves, about 10 percent of his workers experienced skin irritation from glove materials and had trouble finding something they could wear through a whole shift.
Hanks said irritation usually happened when workers started sweating, and that problems increased significantly in the summer months. So what causes so many workers to experience skin irritation from their gloves or sleeves? To find out, we have to understand how gloves are made cut-resistant.
Traditional protective gloves
For every knit glove or sleeve, protection begins with the yarn. The yarn is traditionally made of an inner core surrounded by an outer wrap.
The outer wrap is usually made of cut-resistant HPPE (High Performance Polyethylene) or Aramid with some additional filler like nylon, polyester or spandex to make the material stretch and move.
The core can be made from a few different materials, alone or blended together, depending on the glove’s purpose. Fiberglass, the same material found in building insulation, provides the lowest cut resistance – generally from A2 to about A4. Steel provides higher cut resistance, but is the heaviest core material and also the most rigid. Basalt, or extruded volcanic rock, offers cut protection as high as A4. All three materials can be used together in different combinations to achieve cut levels as high as A5 or even higher. However, multiple blended core materials result in a heavier overall glove.
So what’s the problem?
Fiberglass, steel and basalt cores have worked very well for many years, and for most workers it’s been smooth sailing. But the problem lies in what happens when gloves begin to wear. As workers move their hands and arms, gripping and stretching within the material, the core inside each piece of yarn is stressed and over time, some of the strands break. While it isn’t obvious to the naked eye, the glove begins to have tiny broken fibers that poke out and rub against skin with every movement. For workers with sensitive skin, or workers with allergies to core materials, this causes redness, rash, itching and pain.
What’s the solution?
Until recently, options for workers with skin irritations were limited. Hanks said his problem-solving process was trial and error as he’d call different suppliers to trial various gloves or sleeves to see what might be less irritating. One of Hanks’ workers even brought in an arm shield that he said “looked like he had a window screen strapped to his arm with loops. It wasn’t the most ideal situation.”
Recent advancements in technology have brought us new coreless yarns. This technology is exactly what it sounds like – cut-resistant material made of yarn without a core. So no fiberglass, steel or basalt, and no rigid core material to break and poke into workers’ skin. Instead, specially engineered yarn is infused with strength-enhancing micro particles for higher levels of cut protection that is inherent to the yarn itself. Coreless yarns currently on the market range anywhere from a cut level A2 to A4.
Coreless technology is great news for sensitive workers, but it’s also good news for everyone else as eliminating the core creates material that’s thinner, cooler to the touch and lighter-weight for a more comfortable glove or sleeve.
Looking to the future
Coreless yarns may be the wave of the future as safety managers look for better comfort and compliance. But right now, there are a few things standing in the way of making more products coreless. The first is cost. As with all new technology, coreless materials are slightly more expensive than products made with traditional materials. In fact, it’s possible that coreless will always be more a bit more expensive than traditional. Why? Because, depending on the cut level needed, using an inexpensive core like fiberglass allows manufacturers to use a less expensive HPPE or nylon material to make cut-resistant yarn. The combination of inexpensive core and inexpensive material create the desired cut level while lowering the overall cost of the glove. Another reason coreless isn’t always the answer is that the level of cut-resistance achievable with this technology hasn’t yet reached above an A4. But engineers continue to push the envelope and are expected to achieve thinner coreless yarns for lighter gloves and better tactile sensitivity in the not too distant future.