The safety manager at a small parts manufacturing company has trouble making sure employees wear the right gloves for all of the hazards at his facility.

He tries to choose adequate protection, but sometimes finds it difficult to match protection with specific applications. Other times, gloves fall short of expectations, employees complain that gloves make their tasks more difficult, or employees take off their gloves when they should not.

This safety manager's problems are not uncommon: Choosing gloves can be a confusing task, especially in workplaces where chemical resistance, cut protection and dexterity are all needed.

The search for the "perfect" glove or "total" protection is far from over, but help is on the way from suppliers of arm and hand protection. Selecting the appropriate protection is becoming more formal and systematic.

A new guide from the National Industrial Glove Distributors Association (NIGDA), Philadelphia, offers a five-step process for selecting hand protection. "The Complete Guide to Understanding and Selecting Coated Work Gloves for Hand Protection" is available for $35 by contacting NIGDA at (215)564-2175. Its five steps are:

  • Evaluate the physical conditions gloves will be exposed to and determine how much protection is needed against abrasion, cut, puncture, tear and snag.
  • Compare glove features such as length, type of cuff and insulation to specific job tasks.
  • Choose the gloves that offer appropriate protection and performance. This includes liquid-tight integrity and resistance to chemicals present.
  • Select gloves based on employee evaluations of protection, comfort and functionality.
  • Periodically reevaluate glove choices to ensure that they are performing up to expectations and that workplace hazards have not changed.

The NIGDA guide also evaluates the chemical resistance of various glove materials. For example, it recommends gloves made of butyl rubber for protection against alcohols, esters and nitriles, but not against halogenated compounds and hydrocarbons. For those kinds of materials, gloves made of fluorocarbon rubber are a better choice, according to NIGDA.

At press time, NIGDA was updating a second guide, "The Complete Guide to Cut-Resistant Hand Protection." The current version covers the advantages and disadvantages of materials such as cotton, leather, elastomers and manmade fibers. According to NIGDA, Kevlar, Spectra, Vectran, specialty core spun yarn, and steel metal mesh materials are "high-performance materials" that offer the highest level of cut protection.

The Industrial Safety Equipment Association (ISEA), the manufacturers' trade association based in Arlington, Va., is also involved in helping to sort out the hand protection selection maze. ISEA's Hand Protection Group is developing a voluntary consensus standard on selecting hand protection that it hopes to get approved by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

The proposed standard establishes test methods and classifications for protection against cuts, puncture, heat, cold, chemicals, viral penetration and flame. It also covers dexterity, gripping and latex allergy concerns.

"This will be a one-stop shopping source for hand protection information," said Michael Garrobo, chair of the ISEA group and quality manager at Best Manufacturing Co., Menlo, Ga. "There is no super-glove, but there are a lot of products to choose from. We want to make sure people get the right one for their application."

The standard will set numerical classifications for the amount of protection offered. According to a draft of the standard, gloves will have a cut resistance rating from Level 0 to Level 5 and a chemical permeation classification from Level 0 to Level 4. The higher numbers signify higher performance. Risks and consequences of exposure should be factored in to determine how much protection is needed.

Currently, manufacturers rate gloves on their own as offering "poor," "fair," "good" or "excellent" protection against a specific hazard. Unfortunately, there are no consistent definitions for these terms, according to Mike Breton, president of MAPA Professional, a Willard, Ohio, glove manufacturer and ISEA group member.

"Every company has different standards," he said. "Good at one company may not mean the same thing at another."

The new classification system would bring consistency of language and protection, according to Breton. A glove with a current chemical permeation rating of "excellent," for example, would have to protect hands for at least three hours to be classified as Level 3 and at least eight hours to be at Level 4.

Gloves' dexterity ratings will be determined by comparing the time it takes to perform a work test barehanded to the time it takes with gloves. The work tests will simulate two common industrial situations: fine work such as electronic assembly and coarse work such as parts cleaning.

Even as the consensus standard is under development, Garrobo said its basic ideas give safety managers the tools they need to safeguard employees' hands and arms.

"The market allows for a variety of glove properties and capabilities," he said. "You have to know your hazards, select equipment that matches them, and make sure gloves are worn properly. We're trying to do our part so end-users will know more about what they're actually getting."