Handling hazardous chemicals may be an everyday occurrence at your workplace. If your workers are subject to chemical exposure, there are a number of hand protection issues that you need to consider.

Are the gloves used in your work area resistant to the hazardous chemicals they encounter? For how long are they resistant? Do you expect that each resistant glove will be equally resistant to all of the chemical hazards you encounter? Let’s look at some strategies you can adopt to reduce your hand exposure.

One type does not fit all

No single disposable glove, synthetic or natural rubber, will provide resistance to all hazardous chemicals available in the workplace. It is vital to identify which glove will offer the most protection from the hazardous chemical(s) in question.

Many glove types and styles should be available for a variety of specific hazardous chemicals. Moreover, while one generic glove material, such as nitrile, may claim moderate to good resistance to a specific organic solvent, any two different nitrile glove products provided by a given manufacturer may provide unequal resistance to that specific organic solvent.

Conduct thorough research into the chemical-resistant capabilities of the gloves chosen by reading the chemical’s MSDS for suggestions and, if necessary, consulting the gloves’ manufacturer. Many manufacturers either have information about the chemical resistance of their products or can conduct customized chemical resistance testing to provide specific answers to specific glove and chemical interactions.

Interpreting these resistance ratings can sometimes be difficult, especially if numeric rates from exposure to breakthrough are replaced with qualitative values. Moreover, if breakthrough times for glove products are unavailable, manufacturers may provide degradation information in lieu of chemical resistance data. Unfortunately, degradation information, though meaningful, is not a specific indicator of the temporal level of protection provided by the gloves. Instead, degradation often indicates how the chemical in question affects the glove material’s tensile strength after a specified exposure time.

Go the ASTM route

In contrast, one of the tests that can be conducted is the ASTM’s F739 continuous contact chemical exposure analysis. The ASTM method identifies how long after the outside of the glove has been exposed to the hazardous chemical it can be detected on the inside of the glove, termed breakthrough time. If data about the breakthrough time of the chemical is collected every five minutes and exposure is identified after 20 minutes, a normalized breakthrough time is calculated to indicate the amount of time a user’s glove can be exposed without the user being exposed to the chemical.

For the example above, the normalized breakthrough time is 15 minutes using the F739 method.

Good hygiene matters

When wearing disposable exam gloves as protection from hazardous chemicals, it is important to maintain excellent glove hygiene. Prior to donning, gloves should be visually examined for pin holes. Any hole, regardless of its size or place, compromises the barrier integrity of the glove and should be discarded. If a hazardous chemical splashes onto the glove being worn, the wearer should stop the immediate task at hand, remove the glove, and wash hands thoroughly with soap and water. After donning a new pair of gloves, the wearer can continue the task.

Most disposable gloves are not made for long exposures to chemicals; rather they are good for brief protection and maintaining dexterity. The greater the hazard, the greater effort should be taken to eliminate exposure opportunity. Glove hygiene surrounding each chemical hazard should be analyzed independently. Users should apply appropriate measures to each hazard, increasing and/or decreasing protection strategies situationally.

It is important to understand the level of protection being provided by disposable gloves prior to their use. In potential hazardous chemical exposure applications, such a level of understanding requires researching the specific glove being used; it is not enough to assume that the material is sufficient. The chemical risks are ever-present, but they can be significantly reduced with the proper pairing of glove and glove hygiene.

SIDEBAR: When two glove types are better than one

If the chemical resistance of a chosen disposable glove is not appropriate, but chemical-resistant gloves do not offer enough dexterity for the task at hand, a combination of the two glove types can be employed.

Chemical-resistant gloves, such as norfoil types, are often designed to protect users from many organic solvents, but are usually not form-fitting, and thus can be difficult to use if work tasks require fine motor movements. Synthetic or natural latex disposable gloves can usually be worn over non-form-fitting, thinner norfoil type gloves to increase the users’ fine motor skills. The level of protection provided from the reusable, chemical-resistant glove is complemented by the increased fit and feel of the disposable glove.