The physical challenges facing an aging workforce can be broken into three categories, which, if addressed properly, can extend a worker’s years of meaningful employment.
Decreased resilience – Age decreases the body’s resilience to ongoing wear and tear, making older workers more susceptible to cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs), which affect the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. In addition, repetitive motion injuries (RMI), including carpal tunnel syndrome, are often a problem. When workers perform tasks repeatedly, the nerves and tendons in the hand may become irritated and swell, compressing the median nerve extending from the forearm into the hand. This compression increases when workers apply force. Wet or slippery objects require individuals to grip even harder to maintain a secure grasp, which compresses the nerve even more.
Joint movement and arthritis – One of the most significant physical changes occurs in the joints responsible for small motor movements. As workers age, their dexterity diminishes, and they are not able to grasp and manipulate objects as well as in their younger years. In addition, the incidence of arthritis â€” or joint inflammation â€” increases dramatically after the age of 45. Arthritis, which is more prevalent in older women, reduces flexibility and dexterity and makes many manual tasks difficult.
Poor circulation – Decreased circulation contributes to cold sensitivity in older workers, especially in the hands and feet. These individuals adjust more slowly to changes in external temperatures and are more likely to become overheated when performing manual labor.
Hand protection solutions
Ergonomically designed hand protection products are a must for reducing RMIs and related musculoskeletal disorders in an aging workforce. They can also provide support for arthritic hands, leading to an increase in productivity.
As with all protective apparel, gloves should be selected to protect workers from task-related hazards. If, for example, workers handle sharp parts or perform tasks that involve sharp blades, they should wear gloves that provide high levels of cut protection.
What are some other things to consider when selecting specific hand protection? Taking time to analyze your needs will help you make the right choices. The main considerations are comfort and support, grip and synergy.
Comfort and support
Comfort is especially important as the work force ages and more workers suffer from arthritis and loss of muscle strength. Recent advancements in knitting technology allow manufacturers to vary the density and tension of stitching in areas where the wearer needs more room, such as the knuckles, back of the hand and the creases of the palm. Variable stitching assures greater comfort and dexterity â€” and enhances worker productivity and performance.
Some glove manufacturers also employ additional stitching to reinforce areas such as the thumb and pointer finger that are often injured during accidents involving the hand. This allows manufacturers to add cut resistance and extra reinforcement to the thumb and pointer finger for greater protection and support.
The American International Health Alliance (AIHA) recommends that workers wear gloves that improve grip to prevent CTD and repetitive motion injuries. Natural & synthetic (e.g., nitrile) rubber gloves are ideal for applications that require extra grip because they increase friction between the hand and the object.
Gloves that incorporate new grip technology allow workers to apply significantly less force while effectively grasping wet and oily objects. A roughened surface comprised of microscopic channels in a patented ultra-thin nitrile coating directs fluids away from the grip surface. The relatively dry contact area that remains helps workers maintain almost the same grip on wet or oily objects as in dry conditions.
Some gloves combine materials to provide synergistic benefits, such as cut resistance and moisture management. “Plaiting” allows different materials to be used inside the glove than on the outside. Plaiting is especially applicable with engineered fabrics such as Kevlar® because manufacturers can use Kevlar on the outside for cut protection and plait the inside with nylon or another fabric to keep the hands warm and comfortable or to improve moisture management.
A word on fit
Irrespective of application or protective requirements, gloves should fit and function like a second skin. This flexibility is especially critical for aging workers who may suffer the effects of arthritis or require improved dexterity or better grip.
Hand protection products that are too small may restrict movement and blood flow, resulting in cramping, hand fatigue and perspiration. Gloves that are too large may be bulky and cause a decrease in dexterity, causing workers to exert undue strain to perform certain tasks.
The best way to determine older workers’ glove requirements is to go on the plant floor and watch individuals on the job. Understanding the work flow and the way workers perform specific tasks will make it easier to identify the risks involved so you can make smart choices about glove requirements.
Training is also essential because as workers age, the balance between their capabilities, the demands of the tasks they perform and the hand protection they use may change. Combining workstation design improvements with training and the right hand protection can increase comfort and protect workers from age-related risks.
Kevlar® is a registered trademark of E. I. duPont de Nemours & Company.