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October 24, 2007

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The gloves are off

Gloves are arguably one of the most crucial elements of PPE, helping to protect workers who have to handle hazardous substances, among other things. However, they are also one of the items of PPE most likely not to be worn, or not worn properly, as Chris Gordon discovered, when his company researched the problem.

It is practically impossible to think of any job that does not involve the use of hands. Only someone who has suffered an injury that has rendered them unable to use even just one of their hands for a short period of time knows full well how lost we are without them. Yet research demonstrates how workers and managers are not taking proper precautions to protect these vital pairs of ‘tools’.

We recently commissioned an independent survey of one hundred UK production managers,1 and the findings were alarming to say the least. They demonstrated a general reluctance among workers in hazardous industries to wear protective gloves, which was compounded by a high level of ignorance and a decidedly lackadaisical approach to enforcement among their managers.

According to the study – which encompassed a range of high-risk sectors, such as manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, construction, chemicals and utilities – a fifth of the UK’s major companies find it difficult to convince workers to wear protective gloves. When asked to identify the major barriers to wearing gloves, loss of dexterity was cited most often. In average ratings, where 10 is the main reason used for not wearing gloves and 1 is not used at all as a reason, loss of dexterity scores 6.9, rising to 9.3 in utilities companies and to 7.3 even in general manufacturing. Loss of sensitivity also scores high (6.8 overall), as does discomfort (6.3).

The importance of maintaining optimum dexterity has heightened in recent years with miniaturisation, and is set to become even more of an issue given that consumer demand for smaller and smaller gadgets and goods is unlikely to abate. Almost two thirds (62 per cent) of those in general manufacturing agreed that this is so.

Another universal pressure is the increasing focus on health and safety and PPE – 29 per cent said it is difficult to reconcile this with increasing production and time pressures. Indeed, 22 per cent went so far as to say that they are under such time pressures that anything that slows down the speed at which workers can get their job done is a real problem.

A macho mentality is seemingly also at play, especially in the north of England, where nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of production managers said male workers are less willing to wear gloves than women – the figure nationwide is only slightly less, at 20 per cent.

Hands off

The survey found that reluctance of workers to wear gloves is exacerbated by lack of understanding among production managers. There is a vast array of gloves available – gloves to protect against specific chemicals, gloves that cater to extremes of heat and cold, gloves that offer bio-protection, gloves that are impervious to liquids, or offer extra protection against cuts and abrasions – but a glove that protects against one hazard may give hardly any protection against another. Astonishingly, however, 12 per cent of production managers in general manufacturing were of the opinion that protective gloves are “all pretty much the same”, and believe that “so long as they give some protection and leave hands flexible to do the job” they are adequate. A rather worrying 10 per cent in the automotive sector went along with this extremely erroneous notion.

Such is the level of indifference concerning glove wearing in various risky industries that many production managers take a decidedly ‘hands-off’ approach to enforcement. Remarkably, more than one in ten (15 per cent) of all those questioned believed that it is down to the workers themselves – “once I tell them to wear gloves, it is up to them whether they do it or not”.

Not wearing gloves is hardly ever treated as a serious breach of health and safety – 83 per cent of those interviewed said that the first time a worker is caught not wearing gloves they are only given a verbal warning. In 10 per cent of cases in general manufacturing, absolutely no action is taken at all.

In addition, checks are not being done regularly enough to ensure that workers are wearing their gloves and using them properly. A quarter (24 per cent) said they do it on an ad-hoc basis, or not at all.

Ringing the changes

When asked if they have changed, or are planning to change, or improve manufacturing processes to reduce exposure to toxins, 54 per cent said no. In part, this may be due to a lack of available information: one in ten companies (9 per cent) said there is not enough information on toxins and the correct use of PPE.

But while companies are placing little emphasis on improving their manufacturing processes to make them safer, plenty of work practices are changing and, consequently, risks – and the need for PPE – are increasing. For example, the focus on RSI over the past decade has led many companies to rotate workers so they are doing different tasks and therefore limiting the risk of the condition occurring. Indeed, nearly half the companies (45 per cent) questioned now rotate workers for this reason. (This figure rises to 67 per cent in general manufacturing.) But while these companies may be reducing the risk of musculoskeletal complaints they are likely to be shoring up potential skin problems owing to their lack of emphasis on glove-wearing.

Significantly, 36 per cent of those workers who are rotated will then find themselves working in both wet and dry environments. Switching between such radically different working conditions has major implications for wearing safety gloves. It is extremely unlikely that one glove will protect against all hazards encountered in the different environments, hence workers need to be made very aware of, and stay alert to, the need to change gloves as they change tasks. Yet the rest of the research seems to indicate that this is unlikely. The easiest, most basic precaution employers and managers can take to ensure that gloves are worn as and when they should be is to display a sign reminding workers to do so. Amazingly, however, while 79 per cent of general manufacturers questioned do display signs to remind workers to wear gloves, a staggering 21 per cent do not.

Elements of production processes are also regularly switched. A quarter of all those questioned said they generally introduce new chemicals, new equipment, or new working practices at least once a quarter. Overall, there is an estimated average of two changes a year.

Again, such changes should be accompanied by a review of protective gloves, since the introduction of new and different equipment, practices and components will impact on the types of hazards likely to be encountered and therefore the protection needed. But with processes and components changing so swiftly, what is particularly worrying is that gloves are changed, or reviewed, on a far less regular basis.

When asked how often they review the gloves their workers are wearing, a fifth (19 per cent) in general manufacturing and 21 per cent in construction said only once a year. In general manufacturing, 4 per cent said they were reviewed only every ten years, or had never been reviewed!

Helping hand

Training is vital for all elements of health and safety. Although 97 per cent reported that PPE glove usage is included in the company’s general health and safety training, with 90 per cent receiving some instruction on why gloves should be worn and the dangers of not wearing them, this is misleadingly positive when other results of the survey are taken into account.

When companies were asked how regularly they have training on the hazards to workers’ hands and the need to wear protective gloves, the highest percentage – more than half (55 per cent) – said it was only ever done at induction. Only 28 per cent are doing refreshers every six months or every year, as is advisable.

Taking all this into account, it comes as no great surprise that half the managers who took part in the survey reported serious incidences of cuts and abrasions as a direct result of not wearing gloves, or wearing the wrong gloves. One in ten also reported incidences of contact dermatitis.

Conclusion

The vast majority of these injuries and health problems are entirely avoidable if workers wear gloves – so long as they are the right gloves. Even the biggest issue – dexterity – needs not be a problem. Glove manufacturers are acutely aware that this is the greatest barrier to glove wearing and have directed much research and development into making seamless, flexible, comfortable gloves that offer maximum protection while causing minimum loss of dexterity.

But workers will continue to be opposed or ambivalent to glove wearing if their managers continue to treat it with such disregard. The culture needs to change from the top, with glove manufacturers and safety bodies doing their part to ensure that information is readily available about the array of gloves available to cater to the wide range of differing conditions in which workers may find themselves. But even the right glove does not give the protection it should if it is worn wrongly. Workers and managers need to be aware not only of what substances and situations require gloves to be worn but how often gloves should be replaced and cared for, and how they should be taken off, put on, and stored.

The HSE has a series of online guides and other resources relating to glove wearing,2 and any reputable glove supplier or distributor should be able to advise on which gloves to choose, and how to ensure they are properly used. This, together with regular training, reviews and constant vigilance will help ensure workers are in safe hands, and that their own hands are kept as safe as possible.

References

1 A pdf, or full printed report of Mapa Spontex’s research, ‘Hand in Glove’, can be obtained by contacting Victoria Yates – tel: 01905 450338 or email: [email protected]

2 Visit www.hse.gov.uk and type ‘gloves’ into the search box
 

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