The Comfort Factor: Striking the Balance in Hand Protection Development
By Craig Wagner
President of Global Glove

Technology revolutionizes every facet of our lives. From faster computers to Internet-based businesses and digital storefronts, the information revolution continues to outpace society’s ability to keep up. In the hand protection segment of the occupational safety market, technology has helped produce protective gloves made of breakthrough polymers, fabrics, and fibers. Advances in glove manufacturing have delivered protection from chemicals, cuts, heat and cold unimaginable a little more than a decade ago. More importantly, advances in fiber, fabrics and glove liners have created lighter, more comfortable gloves.

Glove manufacturers are indeed in the safety business not the fashion business. However, more and more, glove makers are factoring in comfort, wearability and even style when producing hand protection. That’s because getting workers to use hand protection is now as important as providing protection itself.

Gone are the days?

The evolution of hand protection has come a long way since the advent of simple chore gloves made of cotton, jersey, bulky canvas or leather palms. Yet the same mindset that has governed hand protection development for decades still persists. That premise is based first and foremost on protection, and justifiably so. Unfortunately, that focus is sometimes at the expense of other equally important considerations. Namely, qualities such as manual dexterity and comfort.

In 1999, the Bureau of Labor statistics documented more than 3,200 arm and hand injuries on job sites across the country.* These injuries ran the gamut from superficial cuts and abrasions to disfiguring lacerations and debilitating illnesses related to chemical exposure. In an overwhelming majority of these arm and hand accidents, the leading culprit was misapplication or complete absence of gloves. And employers are beginning to take notice. That's because the bottom line, once predicated on keeping acquisition and safety supply costs low, is taking a hit from lowered productivity and the growing specter of litigation.

While it’s difficult to get foremen, tool crib or acquisition managers on the record, the safety engineer’s dialogue increasingly is centering on gloves that get worn. Privately, some have admitted that even a glove that may perform a little poorer than another in the same application may get the nod if it is widely accepted on the floor.

“I have a discretionary budget to make sure what I buy gets used,” explained one safety engineer at a national aeronautics company. “I’ve actually bumped a safety product that costs more to procure in favor of a less expensive one, and not because of price. Rather, it spec’d out according to our needs and workers preferred its look over the more expensive and more protective item.”

“Comfort is a safety issue,” explained Craig Woodward, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Kappler Safety Group, an Alabama-based designer and manufacturer of HazMat suits and protective apparel. “Protection is still the number one issue, but over protecting can reduce the comfort level and actual use. This is especially true with lower nuisance hazards.”

Style Over Substance?

In addition to comfort and fit, today’s workers are also demanding stylish options in their arm and hand protection choices. This trend is the result of several factors most notably the revolution in other PPE lines, such as eye protection, earplugs and fall protection. Companies like H.L. Bouton, Inc. and Howard Leight have zeroed in on workers’ sense of identity on the job. Reflecting lifestyle and societal fashion trends, the companies have created options that mirror popular consumer styles such as wrap-around, Oakley and Revo-type glasses.

According to Dave Roll, vice president of sales & marketing at Massachusetts-based H.L. Bouton, fashion and consumer trends drive new product development. “Historically, safety eyewear providers simply looked at the ANSI standards for guidance. Today, it’s not enough to meet or exceed those protection and assurance levels. If you’re in PPE business, you better know what trends are taking place in the consumer marketplace before you send your R&D people to their drafting tables.”

I’ll never forget the first time I witnessed this trend a little over 15 years ago. As a native Minnesotan, I covered that territory as a glove salesman. It’s where I came from. And the stoic machismo of the arctic blue-collar worker was ingrained at birth. You worked hard, did your job, shoveled your walk, and didn’t complain about illness or the weather. And you certainly didn’t wear fancy, Day-Glo® pink wrap-around safety glasses. For us non-generation Xers, the standard issue safety goggles were the black “Buddy Holly/shop class” safety glasses everyone wore. The safety glasses that had done the job for as long as anyone could remember having been required to wear eye protection.

That day I entered the plant floor of the Ford truck plant in Saint Paul and saw these same men sporting designer, safety eyewear I knew the rules of our industry had changed for good. Now we don colorful, futuristic HazMat apparel, slip and fall protection and slip rigging that resembles rock climbing gear, and safety helmets with every imaginable theme, from NASCAR to the NHL. Today, the safety equipment manufacturer must factor in a worker’s need for self-expression and social identity on the job.

A Question of Balance

Safety and protection are the priority of any industrial equipment manufacturer. Compliance with industry-specific, OSHA and EPA guidelines is not only essential, but also mandatory. Yet, hand protection manufacturers and distributors must understand that within the protective specifications of each glove there lies a hidden set of regulations. Those are the rules governing comfort, fit and style.

Where to start? For gloves, the answer lies in the application. As glove makers, we’re trained to take our cues from the application our gloves are designed to address. We think in terms of resistance and protection according to the dictates of the job. If it’s kiln or high heat, injection molding operation, we’re thinking thermal and heat resistance. A shearing or metal fabrication job in chassis assembly or salvage brings to market high performance yarns such as aramids and composite yarns designed to prevent cuts and tears. And so it goes.

Yet within those same applications lie two inter-related components, comfort and manual dexterity. In kiln operations or high-heat, injection molding work, the ability to digitally manipulate a product for evening out exposure, dipping or simply for inspecting purposes is critical. A glove that is too bulky will fall short. And while a worker will not be able to opt out of hand protection, he or she may very well choose a glove that was never intended for such situations. The result will be equally disastrous.

Similarly, comfort and fit play a key role in shearing and metal fabrication operations. While thermal and heat resistance hand protection is pretty much relegated to optical orange for easy identification, cut resistant gloves have no such constraints. And while manufacturers are responding to dexterity and comfort questions by providing styles in varying thickness and natural rubber coatings, attention must also be paid to style and color options. The utilitarian perception of a standard color for a specific glove/application, pale yellow denoting Kevlar® brand aramid, for instance, is no longer appealing to most workers. And while color-coding makes life easier for the plant supervisor and safety engineer, it does little to the individual worker who seeks a personal or more fashion-conscious statement in his or her hand protection choices.

Fashion or trendiness should never win out over safety. Our job is to ensure a level of protection equal or greater to the applications our customers face everyday on the shop floor. But the reality of today’s workforce and boom economy dictate a different approach for the successful safety equipment manufacturer. While individual choice and styling may have less to do with safety than proper fit, tactile sensitivity and manual dexterity, if it means the difference between glove usage, they might as well be.

As our safety engineer friend charged with the task of creating a safe working environment for his aeronautics company opined, “Today we’re fighting for all the skilled and unskilled workers we can hire. If it takes a zebra-striped helmet and a pair of plaid work gloves to get them comfortable and in the habit of wearing the proper PPE, then so be it.”

Craig Wagner (craig.wagner@globalglove.com) is the President of a privately held glove maker, Global Glove of Ramsey, Minnesota. In addition to speaking and writing extensively about the hand protection market, Mr. Wagner is a frequent lecturer at on-site safety and quality assurance seminars for industrial workers across the country and around the world.

* Source: 1999 Bureau of Labor Statistics for Occupational and Workplace Injuries

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