Better Protective Gloves Take Worker Injuries In Hand

New materials encourage compliance to reduce direct and indirect costs of hand injuries on the job.

Hand injuries are among the leading causes of work-related injury. The good news is that they can be prevented by wearing appropriate protective gloves. The bad news? A U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) study indicated that approximately 70 percent of workers who experienced hand injuries in manufacturing environments were not wearing protective gloves at the time.

Manufacturing organizations need insights into the reasons why workers choose not to wear protective gloves, and fresh solutions to reverse this dangerous practice. Fortunately, new material technologies that combine a high level of cut protection along with light weight, thinness for improved dexterity and breathability to prevent overheating are emerging in the market. These materials make it possible to design high-performance, comfortable gloves that workers willingly and consistently use. In view of the major costs of hand injuries, advanced safety gloves can deliver a fast return on investment for the organization.

Direct And Indirect Costs Of Hand Injuries

Although the most important reason to reduce hand injuries is worker health and safety, there is a compelling business case for accident prevention. The direct costs of hand injuries — such as medical care and rehabilitation, workers’ compensation payments, legal expenses and fines — are very high. But the indirect costs are even higher.

Direct costs of hand injuries can have a major financial impact on a business. Here are some examples:

  • A study appearing in Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery indicated that hand and wrist injuries represent the most expensive type of injury in the Netherlands, costing about $740 million annually.
  • Stitches can cost up to $2,000, mending a laceration can cost up to $10,000 and repairing a severed tendon can exceed $10,000.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports, “The average hand injury claim has now exceeded $6,000, with each losttime workers’ compensation claim reaching nearly $7,500.”

However, such costs are only the tip of the iceberg. According to the American Society of Safety Engineers, indirect costs of injuries may be 20 times the direct costs. They can include the expense of investigating the accident; lost worker productivity; training of a replacement employee; damage to workers’ morale that leads to absenteeism; and a negative impact on the company’s reputation.

Causes Of Non-Compliance

Manufacturers need to understand why some workers fail to use protective gloves consistently or at all. Assuming that the gloves provided are appropriate for the tasks involved, and that the organization has clearly explained the importance of wearing them, workers’ failure to comply may be due to discomfort or lack of dexterity.

Many traditional safety glove materials, including leather, cotton, nylon and aramid, can add bulk and impair breathability. Some cut-resistant gloves — such as those used in automotive, steel, glass and paper manufacturing operations that require enhanced cut protection beyond the ANSI cut level 4 (according to the new U.S. standard in effect since January 2016) — are reinforced with steel or fiberglass. However, these materials add bulk, stiffness and sometimes weight that interfere with dexterity in precision tasks and cause hand fatigue. Fiberglass, made up of continuous glass filaments, is brittle and easily broken. Broken fiberglass filaments can poke the skin, causing irritation and diminishing cut protection in real world situations, as the current cut protection ratings for fiber reinforced with fiberglass depend on intact filaments to stop sharp edges.

Advanced Fiber Technologies

Advances in cut-resistant fiber technology help to eliminate the reasons why workers fail to use protective gloves. These high-performance textiles, based on ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE), offer lighter weight, less bulk and greater comfort and durability than traditional materials. They also provide options: better protection at the same weight and thickness as traditional materials, or the same protection in lighter-weight, thinner gauges. When enhanced with special hardness components, the fiber can deliver cut resistance up to ANSI cut level 4. This is important to note, because materials incorporated to reach cut test scores above this level result in gloves that sacrifice comfort, often significantly.

When Stihl, the chainsaw manufacturer, decided to upgrade workers’ protective gloves at its Swiss chain production facility, the company not only looked for cut protection at EN 388 Level 3, it also tested for comfort, wearability, dexterity and durability. After evaluating 13 different gloves, Stihl selected a product made with advanced UHMWPE fiber. It offers high cut resistance to meet requirements, and gives employees a comfortable option for handling parts with sharp points and edges.

Measurable Benefits

So, how will an investment in protective gloves featuring advanced cut-resistant UHMWPE pay off?

OSHA’s Office of Regulatory Analysis suggests that companies that implement effective health and safety programs can expect a return of $4 to $6 for every U.S. dollar invested. Similarly, according to the findings of the Executive Survey of Workplace Safety conducted by the Liberty Mutual Group, 61 percent of respondents believed their companies receive a return on investment (ROI) of $3 or more for each dollar they invest in improving workplace safety, while 13 percent reported $10 is returned for each U.S. dollar invested.

In Stihl’s case, the new gloves have been readily accepted by employees. Better compliance has significantly cut the cost of the factory’s occupational safety insurance.

Besides delivering monetary ROI, protective gloves featuring the latest high-performance technologies can:

  • Improve worker productivity by making it easier to complete tasks requiring precision and dexterity
  • Raise employee morale by avoiding injuries and reducing or eliminating complaints about heavy, bulky or uncomfortable gloves
  • Increase customer confidence in the organization’s health and safety programs, which can make the difference in winning bids and government contracts

Workplace hand injuries, particularly cuts and abrasions, not only affect workers’ health but also generate high direct and indirect costs for businesses. Many of these injuries could be prevented if workers would consistently wear appropriate protective gloves on the job. To boost compliance, manufacturers are turning to protective gloves made with next-generation materials. Ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene technologies surpass traditional materials by providing lighter weight, reduced bulk and improved coolness/breathability, combined with cut resistance up to the highest level of protection.

Matt Reid is High Performance Textile Marketing Manager, Americas, for DSM Dyneema. He is on the board of the International Glove Association and is former chairman of the ISEA Hand Protection Group.

This article was originally published in the May/June print edition of IMPO. To view the digital version, click here.