Choosing the right hand protection

Nitrile disposable gloves provide a durable protection barrier against oils and grease.
Nitrile disposable gloves provide a durable protection barrier against oils and grease.

Ensuring that an effective hand protection policy is in place to safeguard those employees handling chemicals can impact positively on a business. After all, it is not only a legal requirement to protect the workforce but any employee from organisations offering personal protective equipment (PPE) solutions, this need not be alarming.

Chemicals are hazardous to the body’s largest organ – the skin and can cause multiple health problems even if only exposed to an accidental spillage or vapour. The adverse effects of exposing the hands to chemicals can range from drying of the skin, irritation such as dermatitis, changes in skin colour, corrosion and even cancer. Chemicals entering through the skin can also contribute to a health problem elsewhere in the body such as internal organs or even bodily systems.

There are many industries in which chemicals are handled. Often this involves employees decanting chemicals into containers, applying chemicals manually, mixing, handling and transporting.

Optimum protection

Protective gloves can act as a barrier between the wearer and the chemical if properly selected but will only remain effective until the barrier is breached. Employers may need help to determine which chemical-resistant glove provides the optimum protection for their work force. No one glove is suitable for all tasks or even chemicals so employees will need help choosing which glove is right for them. As well as glove selection, employees need to know how to look after their gloves and when they need replacing.

Wearers can wrongly believe they are protected simply because they are wearing a pair of gloves. Not only does the glove have to protect against the chemical but there is always the possibility the barrier can be breached over the course of a shift – via permeation or penetration.  

Permeation is the process by which a chemical migrates through a glove’s material on a molecular level and penetration is classed as the movement of a chemical or micro-organism through the material on a non-molecular level. It doesn’t always transpire that the glove has obviously been breached, but if either permeation or penetration occurs, it may be too late to prevent injury or a health risk.

Much of a glove’s performance in respect to these two areas will depend primarily on the material that it is made from. For instance: • Gloves made from Butyl have a high permeation resistance to gases and water vapour as well as highly corrosive acids, ketones and esters. • Natural rubber latex gloves are resistant to animal fats, caustics, acids, salts and detergents, but latex does not suit everyone – some people have a latex sensitivity. • Neoprene gloves are robust with resistance to a wide range of chemicals, solvents, oils, acids, caustics and greases. • Nitrile gloves are resilient to some chemicals, including petrochemicals, fuels and most acids. • PVC gloves are also durable with protection against some chemicals, including petrochemicals, oils and grease. • However, the gloves offering the highest chemical resistance contain Viton, providing protection against aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene, toluene and xylene.

In Europe, gloves classified as offering protection against chemicals have been tested in accordance with the EN374 European Standard, regulated by the European PPE Directive 89/686/EEC. This test exposes the glove’s material to a variety of chemicals in order to qualify them and these are then identified with the ‘conical flask’ pictogram and a three-digit code. This code refers to three chemicals (from a list of 12 standard defined chemicals) for which a breakthrough time of at least 30 minutes has been obtained.

Glove wearing is one of the most effective industrial injury prevention programmes. Statistically, wearing gloves reduces the risk of injury by 60%. Yet despite the leap forward in terms of innovation with space age fabrics enabling workers to undertake the most delicate of tasks, a single issue still remains – how do you ensure workers are wearing the right glove for the level of exposure to specific chemicals?


Again, statistics show that the risk of injury is substantially reduced when suitable hand protection is utilised. But getting that ‘suitability’ right is fundamental. Chemical injuries can be potentially life-changing for the worker and very costly for the business. When selecting protective gloves, it is important to know what chemical is to be protected against, the demands of the handling task and then select a glove that will offer appropriate resistance and functionality.

For employers, gloves are often viewed as a necessary evil; an expensive commodity that adds nothing to the value of the work done but legislation dictates they must be supplied so often price dictates the choice. However, the right hand protection solution can add significant productivity gain as well as the obvious safety benefits. If you consider that your hands are the only part of your body you intentionally put into contact with a hazard, it’s clear that the fit, comfort and performance of gloves can be critical to safety and productivity.

As well as offering appropriate protection against specific chemicals, gloves may need to provide grip for efficient handling as well as a comfortable and ergonomic fit – the latter being a point that employees too often complain about.

Properly fitted and good quality gloves follow the hand’s natural contours, reducing stress against the thumb and fingers. Gloves which are too large can create folds which can impair work and be uncomfortable. They need to be comfortable and allow dexterity to perform different tasks. A flexible, robust glove should facilitate good movement and provide resistance to tearing.

Gloves that are too small can restrict blood flow and movement which can motivate fatigue. A properly fitting and performing glove is less likely to be removed when performing tasks – this reduces risk and aids productivity.

Safe working practices

Few companies would supply only two sizes of safety footwear or clothing to a workforce and expect it to fit comfortably, yet this is regularly seen when it comes to the emotive issue of hand protection. There is considerable data to support the fact that considerable workplace risk can be averted through safe working practices and properly protected employees.

Employers not only have a duty to provide PPE, but it also makes sound business sense as this can reduce the number of days off work due to illness or injury. As well as providing protection against chemicals, gloves can guard against cuts, punctures, impact, vibration, temperature extremes, prolonged immersion in water and other hazards.

There are different types of glove designed for specific tasks and industries too. For example, individuals working with cement may receive direct irritation at the point of contact from the ability of the cement to dry out the skin. Workers may also become sensitised to cement due to the chromates present in the material. Workers in the oil, gas, and petroleum industries often require gloves that provide protection from chemical spillages and that facilitate excellent levels of grip in oily handling conditions.

The onus is on employers to train employees and provide the correct and appropriate level of personal protective equipment. Procedures need to be put in place to ensure gloves are changed regularly. Regarding protection against chemicals, gloves that bear a CE mark and EN374 (ANSI 105-2011 in the US) symbols are going to be resistant to a certain level that will protect the wearer.

However, for the utmost confidence in managing the risk to workers, ensuring glove selection is right, it is best to seek expert advice from glove manufacturers and consult industry tools such as a chemical resistant glove directory. The website is one such example, powered by Showa Best Glove. On this website, you can search by chemical name or number and see the appropriate glove that will protect along with its specific breakthrough times.

Individual needs

Chemical resistance aside, it is also necessary to take into account specific and individual needs of the workers. For example, it is not uncommon for some people to be affected by a latex sensitivity or a reaction to a substance used in the manufacture of lower grade gloves.

In the long run, correctly specified gloves which match the risk and the worker requirements will prove a very cost-effective solution. They can last longer, meaning fewer pairs are consumed and worker acceptance can be greatly increased. This also affects productivity as fewer glove changes mean more work is done. When the right protection is put in place this can improve hand accident rates and ultimately save costs.