One of the latest advances in workplace hand protection arises from a value-chain collaboration that has led to a “better” protective glove that brings comfort, confidence and a remarkable reduction in lacerations for workers assembling air conditioners and appliances.

These protective gloves have enabled significant reductions in OSHA reportable lacerations and, in one company, have visibly increased productivity and, therefore contributed to the bottom line.

Ingenuity, innovation, inventiveness – none of these are unusual in today’s competitive markets. Indeed they’re crucial to growth and survival in this technological world. Driving innovation is frequently a strategic imperative and a capital commitment, but it does not always have to be a massive undertaking. A significant resource for innovation may well be the verychannelsin which your business operates: the supply channel, value chain and distribution chain.

Michael Hammer, well-known author ofReengineering the Corporation, sets forth several principles of success for business in the new millennium in his latest book,The Agenda: What Every Business Must Do to Dominate the Decade. Among other things, Hammer urges his readers to change how they see and use the value chain into a channel that works to serve the end customer. He goes further to say the channel is a “community.”

It was precisely thiscommunityof channel players that led to the new personal protective equipment (PPE) glove, including the enthusiastic reception by employees, the strong metrics in safety and even the bottom-line benefits. What is involved in bringing the resources, ingenuity and commitment of players in a channel together to address a need?

There are several steps, which appear below. But driving those steps is an energy – what several channel players label their “passion” for safety. When you look at safety in any organization, there are only a handful of Certified Safety Professionals (CSPs), usually with a relatively lean staff. Safety compliance is itself enough of a challenge. Helping evolve protective equipment to the next level is an added challenge.

But when linked together, the safety professionals in a channel can be a perfect team for such an evolution. An example is a remarkable safety glove that emerged from the cut-protection needs of an air-conditioner manufacturer. These needs, which became a “cause” for one PPE distributor, led the safety-glove manufacturer through a two-year odyssey of design and field testing, which in turn also drew on the fiber maker for testing and technical support. The result was a freshly minted glove. It did the job and became one of a number of models in the manufacturer’s catalogue.

Building a better glove
Tim Edwards, CSP, manager, safety, health and security at Whirlpool’s Cleveland, Tenn. facility, was one member of the value-chain quartet that collaborated in the search for a better glove for workers in the plant where ranges and stoves are made. Other members included the fiber maker and its technical support team, the glove manufacturer and the distributor.

The journey from good to great – from good PPE gloves to even better ones – began with understanding hazards and analyzing solutions. For example, gloves of spun aramid fibers were allowing lacerations in much of the facility’s work process, Edwards explained. “This was not happening all the time but, still, too much of the time. We knew we could do better.”

Safety equipment distributor Kent Huber joined forces with Griff Hughes, president and CEO of a family-owned protective glove maker. Huber is an Indiana safety consultant whose entrepreneurial energy led him to found both a distribution business and the Greater Columbus Safety Council. Huber and Hughes responded to the challenge, sifting through the possibilities and finally identifying the glove developed for Whirlpool. This glove model was tested from September through December of 2006 by 500 workers at Whirlpool’s Cleveland, Tenn. plant.

This glove proved to be the solution. It employs a different polymer than that used in the gloves most workers in the plant were wearing, an ultra high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) fiber – one with intrinsic properties that stood up to the minute saw tooth-like edges that could slice through the gloves then in use. Achieving greater laceration protection required the cut-protection of a very high-tenacity fiber to fend off lacerating forces. Such fibers are more costly than the protective yarns currently in greatest use. Superior abrasion resistance, softness and flexibility were also a factor.

Wearing the new gloves with different yarn and different construction, workers had fewer cuts. They also reported that the gloves were cooler and comfortable enough to wear through an entire shift – side benefits that came from the search for better cut protection.

During the trial, workers declined to turn the gloves in when the gloves got dirty. Instead, they took the gloves home, washed them and returned to work using them. Interestingly, cleaning and refurbishing the new gloves has also become part of the solution. Because the new gloves are chemically inert – resistant to most chemicals – they are now easily cleaned, restored and re-stocked by the glove supplier.

Whirlpool’s productivity gains flow from a measurable reduction in direct and indirect costs – resulting in the projected elimination of some $219,000 in costs at the Tennessee facility. Overall, the first quarter of 2007, during which the new gloves were being phased in, showed a 68.7 percent reduction in hand and finger laceration. The gloves also offered better dexterity, resulting in fewer dropped parts and more first-time assembly successes by the workers. Their higher cost is offset by the longer usable life of the new gloves.

The gloves have even become somewhat of a worksite celebrity on their own. They’re protecting stage hands on USA Network’sMonk, as well as NBC Universal’sLaw and Orderand its new series,Heroes.

Value chain innovation
However, the key learning is not about one specific safety glove. It is that players in the channel can do much more than manufacture, sell and buy. How can this success be replicated?

1. Tear down the walls that separate suppliers and customers and challenge them to join forces to make the current situation even safer.

2. Pay close attention to the employee end-users – what they need to be effective and how their current protective equipment is working. That means giving consideration to different processes. For example, in the Whirlpool plant, one glove was retained, because it worked better in that situation.

3. Be transparent in sharing information and encouraging community-like collaboration.

4. Be willing to go back to the drawing board. Trial and re-trials may be needed in engineering upgraded safety equipment, as well as in selecting a “better” product from a wide range of possibilities.

5. Most of all, bring together professionals who share a truepassionfor safety and protection.

One glove, with one fiber and one construction doesn’t fit all needs. It’s the same for hand protection as well as other PPE categories. In most cases, the products that are available are good. It takes having a passion for safety to move the search for a better way – to move from being acceptable to being exceptional.