Comfort is king

Regulation, information and education have helped reduce the number of occupational injuries over the past 10 years.

Adequate personal protection equipment and new materials have raised safety standards in many industries. Hand and finger cuts, however, remain the single most frequent safety hazard in workplaces – not because of a lack of appropriate, cut-resistant gloves, but for lack of acceptance among those who should wear them.

Many safety gloves still do not provide the levels of comfort expected and needed by workers to do their jobs efficiently. Comfort is a measure of convenience, ease and confidence that can depend on several factors. However, there are no standards for the comfort of gloves similar to the EN 388, the European standard used to assess cut resistance for such products.

When it comes to cut-resistant safety gloves, high comfort above all defines the qualities that ideally support the free motion, safe grip and natural dexterity of fingers and hand without any restrictions. Further criteria include light weight, elastic fit and adequate heat dissipation. From the user’s perspective, a person who experiences a comfortable feel in a cut-resistant glove also is much more likely to wear it.

Embracing the needs

Glove materials have made significant advances in recent years. High-performance synthetic fibers have raised the standards of cut resistance to levels above the limits of cotton, conventional fabrics or leather.

Following the success of its ultrahigh-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) fiber in a wide range of application areas, from protective wear to sporting goods and leisure equipment, a new material has raised the bar, performance-wise, helping glove designers and manufacturers to combine high-cut resistance with a step change in comfort. The new technology embraces all factors of comfort, enabling a new generation of well-received safety gloves that can make a significant contribution towards reducing occupational hand injuries.

As a fundamental requirement, safety gloves must be easy to put on and flexible enough to fit different hand profiles within given sizes. Up to 40% stronger than aramid fibers but up to 50% lighter than standard PolyEthelyne, the new UHMWPE fiber enables extremely fine yarns for gloves that will conform to the hand like a ‘second skin’ without compromising their high cut resistance. In fact, the new technology can double the cut resistance at the same levels of comfort as offered by aramid or reinforced polyester fibers or, conversely, can double the appreciable comfort at the same EN 388 cut levels.

Comfortable fit and flexibility of a glove is important regardless of whether it is worn all day or only for individual tasks. But when worn for long periods of time, good heat dissipation becomes another vital property. The glove material must help to prevent an excessive build-up of sweat and instead support a ‘cool feel’ via its breathability.

For reasons of hygiene and cost-effectiveness, it is also desirable to select a glove with a fiber capable of maintaining its high protection and comfort levels even after many washing cycles (as also recommended in EN 420, the standard defining the general requirements for protective gloves in terms of construction, fitness of purpose, safety, etc), though there is no test procedure in place to rate and/or measure this aspect of its performance.

Hands and fingers must bend, flex or articulate at frequent intervals to perform specific tasks. Such actions can lead to breakage of the reinforcing glass fiber in some safety gloves and that can cause itchiness or otherwise irritate the skin.

And even if less sensitive hands may not feel such discomfort, broken glass fibers can greatly reduce the effective cut resistance. For high protection and maximum comfort, the fabric of a reliable safety glove should do without any additional glass, steel or other, potentially unhealthy substances.

Naturally, a high-gauge, thin-fiber glove also will provide the much more sensitive feel required for many delicate tasks, such as handling small but sharp parts in an assembly line. Moreover, the human hand comprises more than 10 different muscles and a corresponding number of tendons and ligaments that interact with each other to allow the most complex motions of hand, wrist and fingers, with angles of articulation up to 90 degrees. A glove that does not restrict the easy turning of a wrist or the bending of knuckles increases the likelihood it will be worn even when performing extremely complicated work that requires a high level of precision and control.

In short, the higher the dexterity and the safer the grip supported by the glove, the greater the comfort and confidence of the wearer.

Better acceptance

The fiber technology readily exists today to produce the most comfortable cut-resistant gloves ever, and glove makers are rapidly adopting it. But still, the majority of all occupational hand injuries in Europe are attributed to victims not wearing any safety gloves.

The numbers differ by trade, but most hand injuries are reported in the building and construction industry, in food processing, metalworking, machine maintenance and other areas, such as forestry, in which hands and fingers must typically handle sharp equipment or parts. The Federal German Agency for Occupational Health and Safety estimates the national economic production losses from disability due to accidents at work in 2013 at 59 billion euros [more than £50b]. The high incidence of workplace injuries to fingers and hands is clear evidence that employers must be more pro-active when it comes to accident prevention.

Effective prevention of such injuries is increasingly seen as an investment that pays significant dividends. It not only maintains the health and productivity of employees, but also strengthens the economic efficiency and competitiveness of the employer’s business.

The average cost for a pair of high-quality, comfortable safety gloves is well below 10 pounds. It is important to consider the potential implications of having an employee suffering a serious hand or finger injury because he or she has opted not to wear proper protective gloves because of lack of comfort or because dexterity was hindered: an injured employee may miss time from work, suffer partial disability or even dismemberment, while the employer may suffer unscheduled downtime, a tarnished image within the industry, and potentially higher insurance rates.

Since the glove technology already exists to minimise these risks, there is no reason why industry in the coming years should not be able to greatly reduce the number of cut injuries in the workplace. To that end, it only makes sense to involve the affected employees in the decision-making process to select, assess and test the appropriate gloves for their specific tasks.

There is a clear trend towards maximising cut-resistance while optimising comfort. Comfort is king, and arguably the biggest factor in ensuring that workers continue to wear the protective gear they are issued. Bulky gloves that restrict the free motion of hands and fingers are no longer effective or appropriate. There no longer is a good reason to compromise on comfort, performance or protection.

Nico Janssen is business manager for high performance textiles at DSM Dyneema