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"The use of PPE must not increase the overall level of risk," says the Health and Safety Executive's guidance (L25) on the Personal Protective Equipment Regulations, "ie PPE must not be worn if the risk caused by wearing it is greater than the risk against which it is meant to protect."
We know that PPE should be the last consideration in controls, but as the last and most local defence against a hazard it has to function as intended. In hand protection this is particularly important; too often generic statements such as "wear gloves" or "gloves provided" appear in the control measures in risk assessments, inspiring no confidence that the assessor has considered the risks fully or the user will know which gloves are required. And the wrong gloves may be worse than none at all, as they can give false confidence to the wearer that they are protected.
There is no single glove that protects all, and even the right glove is likely to offer time-limited protection. So there is no substitute for understanding the specifics of the hazard you need to protect workers' hands against, whether it is corrosive chemicals, hazardous micro-organisms, heat or cold, abrasive surfaces, sharp edges or pointed objects. An assessment also has to account for the type and duration of contact and for the user's size and comfort needs.
The main standards that apply to work gloves are:
BS EN 374-2 -- Protective gloves against dangerous chemicals and micro-organisms: Determination of resistance to penetration
BS EN 374-4 -- Protective gloves against dangerous chemicals and micro-organisms: Determination of resistance to degradation by chemicals
BS EN 388 -- Protective gloves against mechanical risks
BS EN 407 -- Protective gloves against thermal risks (heat and/or fire)
BS EN 511 -- Protective gloves against cold
BS EN 16523-1 -- Determination of material resistance to permeation by chemicals. Permeation by liquid chemicals under conditions of continuous contact (this superseded BS EN 374-3).
Some hazards and activities have specific glove standards, such as work with radiation (covered by BS EN 421), welding (BS EN 12477) and chainsaw use (BS EN 381-7).
Practitioners considering hand protection as part of a range of controls are not expected to know all the detail of these specifications, but it is important to understand the ratings of glove performance that are adequate for a risk flagged in your assessment; the difference between cut level 1 and cut level 6, for instance, or the permeation performance level for a specific chemical, which correlates to the breakthrough time in minutes, after which the glove's protection will have failed. The illustration (see p 52) summarises protection levels from mechanical risks set out in BS EN 388:2016.
Safety data sheets (SDSs) supplied with chemical products can help you decide the protection needed against skin exposure, but they sometimes lack the specifics we would expect. It is not unknown for SDSs to identify brands of gloves rather than specifying the required chemical resistance.
For protection from chemicals we have to consider the glove's resistance to penetration and how long it takes to degrade in contact with the substance. But a task may also carry the risk of abrasions, cuts or punctures, which would compromise the glove's performance and/or cause immediate injury to the wearer, in which case you have to ensure the gloves meet more than one standard's requirements.
The physical extent of the protection is also important. For liquids, you need to consider whether the risk will be from occasional splashes or by total immersion. Short gloves are fine to protect against splashes but if we expect users to immerse their hands the length of the gloves must be greater than the depth of immersion. Gloves and gauntlets provide the main form of hand protection, but other forms such as mitts, wrist cuffs or armlets may be added or substituted for them, depending on the task.
Comfort is another factor, to ensure the gloves you provide are worn in practice. Where hand protection requirements have to take precedence over comfort, mandating "glove breaks" is another way to ensure users' hands don't become too hot and sweaty.
Once the risk assessment is complete, appropriate gloves procured and in use, many practitioners consider hand protection as "job done" until it is time to review the assessment. But we should be more diligent in monitoring the suitability of the gloves we have recommended. Even if you have conducted trials as part of the selection process, regular use may throw up issues that were not apparent then.
Common issues include:
dexterity problems when users cannot feel what they are handling
poor grip when handling wet/oily substances or materials resulting in users dropping items and injuring themselves or "overgripping" and causing fatigue
entanglement, where gloves (particularly loose fitting or longer gloves/gauntlets) become caught in moving machinery (see "Unready to wear", p 45)
gloves filling with substances from the open end during immersion due to short lengths, holding harmful substances against the skin.
We must liaise with PPE users, carrying out in-use inspections and arranging follow-up meetings to allow glove wearers to feed back any problems.
Many businesses have PPE selection-and-use procedures. If yours doesn't, it is something you should consider as it helps identify responsibilities for the selection and assessment process. The procedures also give guidance on the British Standards dependent on the task/substance and identify where to get further competent assistance if necessary.
Working with hazardous substances covered from head to toe in personal protective equipment (PPE) is of limited value if it has not been put on properly to ensure the promised protection. And if the wearer falls at the final fence by transferring hazardous material to themselves in removing the clothing and equipment, then some of the value will be lost and they could be exposed to risks ranging from mild skin or throat irritation, through dermatitis or asthma to cancer.
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