More than 26 percent of all non-fatal accidents in this country involve the hands and arms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Simply placing gloves on workers does not fully eliminate hazards to the hands. “Cut ’n sewn” gloves frequently used in the past, for example, were not ergonomically designed and in some cases actually increased worker risk. Gloves that are ergonomically designed offer better dexterity, tactile sensitivity, comfort and grip — all factors that can boost worker comfort and productivity, and reduce repetitive motion injuries.

Work gloves should provide a physical barrier that protects workers from job-related hazards — and they must be appropriate for the task and enhance each worker’s ability to deliver the highest level of performance.

Consider the fit

Ideally, gloves should fit and function like a second skin. With the exception of disposable gloves, one size of gloves seldom fits all workers. Proper fit is essential to ensure comfort and enhance productivity — especially as more female and Asian employees, who generally have smaller hands, enter the workplace.

If gloves are too small they can restrict movement and blood flow and can lead to cramping and hand fatigue. Gloves that are too small can also increase perspiration, which impairs a worker’s ability to grip and handle objects.

Conversely, gloves that are too loose or bulky can impact a worker’s dexterity and productivity and may increase the risks if employees are working near equipment with moving parts. Loose-fitting gloves are also more likely to slip off a worker’s hands or get caught in “pinch-points,” leaving them exposed to a range of hazards.

Gloves should also be “fit for use,” which means they must provide attributes critical for the job. For example, gloves must exhibit the proper levels of cut or abrasion resistance for prolonged use. And they must be cool, able to manage sweat and able to be worn for extended periods of time without causing skin irritation.

Some gloves combine materials to achieve synergistic benefits — cut-resistant surfaces with moisture management liners. “Plating” the inside of a glove with materials different from materials used on the outside is especially applicable with engineered fabrics such as Kevlar®, because it allows the manufacturer to provide a soft nylon fabric inside the glove to promote comfort.

Over the years, many glove manufacturers have moved away from cut ’n sewn gloves to 3-Dimensional/Automatic Knit Liner (3D/AKL) technology, which has resulted in form-fitted gloves that conform to the specific dimensions of the hands. This production method not only eliminates seams but adjusts the gloves to fit the fingers, the width of the hand, the width of the palm, etc.

Recent advancements in knitting technology take this capability a step further by varying the stitching in certain areas for added flexibility. While the knit density may look the same — even if the gloves are held up to the light — the knitting stitches vary. Workers wearing the gloves will notice the difference when the hands move or stretch. The gloves actually become more comfortable as they are worn.

This technique allows stitching to be varied in areas where the wearer needs extra room, such as around the knuckles, on the back of the hand and in the creases that are part of the palm. Variable stitch technology also provides selective reinforcement in areas such as the thumb and pointer finger, which are often injured during accidents involving the hand. And variable stitching permits added cut resistance to the thumb and pointer finger, which not only provides extra protection and support, but reduces glove production costs.

Prioritizing your glove needs

The best way to determine your glove requirements is to go on the plant floor and observe employees as they perform their jobs. Since workers may use different gloves for the various tasks they perform, employee glove needs should be prioritized according to the types of protection that are most important.

In a metalworking application, for example, cut resistance may be the number one priority as far as hand protection is concerned, although penetration resistance to cutting fluids is also important. If workers are welding metal parts, heat protection may be required as well.

Gloves with moisture-wicking capabilities, which pull perspiration away from the hands, are also available. When the hands are dry, workers have greater dexterity and tactile sensitivity and are less likely to drop parts. They are also able to wear gloves longer when they are not dampened by perspiration. Gloves with moisture-wicking capabilities are especially important for employees laboring in both hot and cold environments.

Ergonomics and grip

Evidence exists linking forceful work with carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health1. When a worker performs tasks repeatedly, the nerves and tendons in the hand may become irritated and swell, which causes compression of the median nerve that extends from the forearm into the hand. This compression becomes even greater when the worker must apply force.

Companies should select gloves that improve worker grip, recommends the American International Health Alliance (AIHA). Gloves should be thin enough that they do not interfere with a worker’s ability to close his or her hands around an object. And gloves should be comprised of materials with a degree of surface roughness that promotes a strong grip force, especially in wet or oily environments. Empirical studies suggest grip force could be up to 40 percent more when working with wet or oily work pieces.

Nitrile gloves (foamed and unfoamed) use material that increases the friction between the hand and the object, which allows the worker to get a better grasp.

Gripping technology was recently introduced that allows workers to apply significantly less force to maintain a secure grip on wet or oily objects. A roughened surface comprised of microscopic channels in a patented ultra-thin coating was added to gloves to direct fluids away from the grip surface.

Studies conducted on the new technology showed workers wearing these gloves were able to use 35 percent to 65 percent less grip force to grip and lift an oily object. Workers were also able to maintain a more secure grasp when the weight of the object they were holding was suddenly increased.

Future of ergonomically designed gloves

Ergonomically designed hand protection products will likely be a requirement for many industrial environments in the future. Gloves will not only fit better and provide workers with specific “engineered” benefits, but they may also promote better hand and skin health.