When we consider the next generation of plant workers, we typically think of younger workers who may be relatively new to the job market.
But, according to The Center for Aging and Work at Boston College, the next generation of workers will likely combine younger and older employees since four of every five baby boomers plan to work past the "normal retirement" age – either because they want to or will need the extra income.
According to the United States Department of Labour, about 40 million people will enter the workforce, 25 million will leave, and 109 million will remain over the next decade. The workforce will be comprised of a rising number of workers under 25 and over 45, with a declining number of middle-age employees. This combination of younger and older workers will make it imperative for companies to provide individuals with hand protection that meets their specific job and age-related needs.
Plant workers are producing more than ever. The US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reported American manufacturing output was 16 per cent higher in 2010 than a decade earlier – despite the Great Recession and the fact that some manufacturing industries virtually disappeared. When this statistic is combined with the sharp drop in employment, the BEA's numbers imply that manufacturing productivity rose an astonishing 74 per cent between 2000 and 2010, according to a recent article in Washington Monthly.
With productivity expectations likely to continue to grow, workers of all ages must be able to perform their jobs as safely, quickly and accurately as possible. Their performance hinges, in part, on having the right gloves and the appropriate level of protection for their jobs.
Employee protection and confidence are closely linked to productivity, with companies incurring major costs – and significant productivity losses – when workers suffer injuries. Even minor wounds will require workers to leave the line and visit the company nurse for treatment.
Companies that adequately protect workers from cuts, burns, punctures and other types of injuries decrease their medical and indemnity costs. They also boost worker confidence and productivity.
Research confirms that workers believe comfort is as important in their work gloves as the products' protective qualities. Glove manufacturers may design products that provide the highest level of cut or chemical protection possible. But, if the gloves fail to ensure a sufficient level of comfort, workers will refuse to wear them for extended periods.
Workers often remove gloves or make adjustments – such as cutting off the glove fingers or clipping the wrist – when products feel uncomfortable or restrict their movements. They may also try to substitute other products for gloves that lack comfort.
A major chemical company discovered employees were bringing their own gloves to work because they felt the gloves the company provided did not provide sufficient comfort. Workers chose a popular glove brand that was available at retail outlets and through distribution. The product was recognized for its comfort and attractive styling, which made it especially appealing. The problem was the gloves did not offer the chemical resistance required, which resulted in injury.
Many factors impact worker comfort and performance, including dexterity, tactility and grip. Features that enhance dexterity and tactility allow the hands and fingers to move freely and increase touch sensation in the fingertips. Gloves that promote dexterity and tactile sensitivity are especially beneficial to workers who must handle small pieces in assembly and packaging operations.
Grip is a comfort factor because workers must apply more force if their gloves do not allow them to grasp objects securely. This added force results in cramping and fatigue and can cause repetitive motion injuries (RMI) such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis.
Various studies indicate that ergonomically designed gloves can help reduce repetitive motion injuries and musculoskeletal disorders – especially in older workers. Workers accustomed to ergonomically designed sports apparel constructed with breathable, light weight materials want these same features in their hand protection.
Gloves should be contoured to the shape of the hand and provide the support needed for specific tasks. They should also fit well because gloves that are too small can restrict movement and blood flow and lead to cramping, fatigue and perspiration. Conversely, gloves that are large and bulky can interfere with hand movement, may become caught in machinery or could even fall off. Proper fit particularly benefits workers who suffer from arthritis.
Workers may also compare their work gloves to sports apparel in which appearance and design are paramount. They may demand more form-fitting gloves with bright colours and accents, patterns and textures.
Color is important, with workers expressing definite preferences. In research conducted among male and female workers in 22 countries to determine their colour priorities, blue was the overwhelming choice, with males choosing green as their second favourite colour and females naming purple as their second preference.
Glove manufacturer response
Glove manufacturers constantly strive to identify worker needs and desires within the changing workplace. For some manufacturers, this means travelling to plant sites to observe individuals at work in various environments and to gain their feedback about the hazards they face, their preferences and on-the-job challenges.
This focus on worker needs has resulted in the use of engineered yarns such as DuPont Kevlar, Dyneema and new 220 denier Dyneema Diamond Technology to increase work gloves' functionality and comfort. Gloves made with Dyneema Diamond Technology, for example, are ultra lightweight and offer tremendous strength and protection against cuts. They are also breathable and provide workers dexterity and tactility similar to what they would experience if they worked barehanded.
Advancements in knitting technology allow manufacturers to vary the density and stitching tension in areas where workers need more room, such as the knuckles and the back of the hand. Varied stitching releases tension in high stress zones and provides an ergonomic fit, which reduces hand fatigue and the likelihood of RMIs. Design techniques that shape gloves to the contours of the fingers and hand promote a natural fit for greater comfort.
Engineered coatings and roughened surfaces in the palm and fingertips boost grip and increase sensitivity in the fingertips. Fabrics that wick moisture away keep the hands dry and comfortable and ensure greater dexterity and tactile sensitivity, which helps reduce the likelihood of dropped parts.
Just as athletes benefit from sports apparel that makes them run faster and jump higher, plant workers will benefit from work gloves that boost their confidence and performance. The next generation of workers – regardless of their age – will require gloves that provide outstanding protection and exceptional comfort. Workers will continue to desire form-fitting gloves that offer a stylish, attractive appearance.
Branded glove manufacturers will respond to worker demands with thinner, functionally superior gloves that are comfortable enough for workers to wear throughout their shifts. These products will protect against a wide range of hazards and incorporate colours and designs that increase their visual appeal.