Selecting the right glove for the right application can help food processors and handlers improve worker safety, productivity and reduce costs while ensuring that food is safe.
Even though hand injuries resulting from cuts and lacerations have decreased in recent years, there is still room for improvement as processors strive to keep their workers safe while protecting the quality and integrity of their products.
Workers in any food processing environment face a number of hazards, including sharp-edged tools, materials and surfaces, temperature extremes, the food products themselves, grease, bacteria and the harsh solutions and chemicals used to clean and sanitise processing areas. Selecting the right hand protection products for these various hazards can help protect workers while potentially reducing insurance and indemnity costs.
Using the right hand protection for the application can also protect food products from contamination and the spread of food borne pathogens.
The "right" hand protection
Comfort is probably one of the most important factors when selecting hand protection products to promote worker safety. If the gloves are not comfortable and are not designed for the task, workers will be less likely to wear them. The wrong hand protection choice or worse, going bare handed, can make them more susceptible to injury and can expose food products to contamination.
Several factors contribute to glove comfort, including fit, flexibility, dexterity and tactile sensitivity. Advancements in materials and glove manufacturing processes have resulted in hand protection products that are lightweight and ergonomically correct. Some coated gloves are dipped on forms with curved fingers that conform to the actual shape of the hand for improved ergonomics and greater comfort.
Gloves that fit well are neither too large nor too small for the worker's hand. Tight-fitting gloves can increase perspiration and lead to hand fatigue and result in injuries. They are also more vulnerable to tears. Conversely, gloves that are bulky or too loose impair the worker's dexterity, slow productivity and can be hazardous when worn near certain equipment. Gloves that are too large are also more likely to fall off the worker's hands.
Comfort and fit are especially important when workers are double- or even triple-gloving for certain tasks. An employee who is de-boning meat in a cold environment may wear three pairs of gloves: a poly/cotton glove worn next to the skin for warmth, a cut-resistant or metal mesh glove to prevent cuts and abrasions, and a vinyl, nitrile or latex outer glove to protect the hands from liquids.
The "right" glove for the task will often be designed specifically for the application. For example, gloves are available with special patterns or embossed designs to improve worker grip on wet, smooth or slippery objects such as meat products, raw potatoes, fish, knives, sharpeners and glass. Good grip can reduce the pressure required to cut products, which, in turn can reduce hand fatigue. Gloves that are designed for better dexterity can also improve worker performance.
Some gloves have distinct colours so workers and their supervisors can easily verify that they are using the right glove for quality critical processes. Poultry and other food processing industries, for example, prefer gloves with a conspicuous blue colour that will be easier to identify if glove particles should contaminate the product.
When selecting gloves that will come into direct contact with food, manufacturers and processors should make sure the glove materials, including colour pigment meet Food & Drug Administration (FDA) standards for food contact. Although OSHA does not certify gloves for specific applications, most glove manufacturers and distributors can make recommendations.
A glove for every task
Below are several categories of gloves that are commonly used in the food industry, their benefits and applications.
The level of cut-resistance required in a glove will depend upon the application. Gloves designed for cut-resistance may be made of various fibres and materials, including cotton, Kevlar®, high performance polyethylene, and stainless steel mesh — to name a few. Some coated gloves also provide excellent cut resistance.
Advanced fibre technology represented by yarns such as Kevlar and high performance polyethylene, enable glove manufacturers to provide lightweight products that are very strong and offer excellent protection against cuts and abrasions. Kevlar is five times more cut-resistant than leather and, depending upon the yarn thickness, can withstand up to 400-degree Celsius temperatures for short intervals. Kevlar can have the feel of cotton but provide a higher level of cut protection without sacrificing dexterity. In many cases Kevlar will not stand up to the high use of bleach in the laundry process and will break down, thus losing the cut resistant benefits.
High performance polyethylene yarns blend polyethylene fibre with other fibres to provide incredible strength and cut resistance. Gloves made with high performance polyethylene yarns are often much cooler than those made of Kevlar, but have a low tolerance to heat. These combinations of fibres do hold up well against bleach and other laundry chemicals, but are not high heat tolerant, no more than 180oC for the drying process.
A glove's cut-resistance is indicated by the level assigned by the American Society of Testing and Materials and the International Safety Equipment Association. ASTM uses a Cut Protection Performance Test as the approved test procedure for cut-resistant gloves.
During the test, a cutting blade (surgical-grade razor) with a specified load (weight) is moved across the material and the distance is measured from the original contact point to the point where the blade actually cuts the material. After several cuts are made using different loads, ASTM plots a load-versus-distance curve, which is used to determine the load required to cut through the material after one inch of travel.
ASTM-ISEA Level 5 cut resistance is the highest level among the ASTM-ISEA standards. Gloves with this level of cut resistance will be appropriate for most knife hand and some offhand applications in various food processing industries. Because the offhand holds the food product while the knife hand holds the knife, the offhand is more likely to be struck by the knife. Workers often wear a heavier cut-resistant glove on the offhand to protect it from knife cuts.
Gloves to protect against heat and cold
A variety of knitted gloves made from cotton, poly/cotton blends, cotton terry and Kevlar yarns are available to protect workers from heat and/or cold. In some applications, these gloves may be used as liners under cut-resistant or moisture resistant products, or they may be used alone. Vinyl coated, foam insulated gloves will also keep hands warm and dry while protecting them from abrasions.
Gloves for gripping
Applications that involve handling poultry, seafood, raw potatoes and other vegetables with slippery surfaces and some red meat products may require a glove with a raised pattern, textured or embossed surface to promote a better grip. These gloves may be made of natural rubber latex, nitrile or a blend of materials.
Although natural rubber latex is comfortable and typically promotes better dexterity, gloves containing this material are not recommended for beef and pork processing operations since the proteins in the meat will break down the latex in a matter of hours. Synthetic nitrile is a better choice for these environments.
Heavy duty gloves
Heavy duty natural rubber latex, nitrile rubber, neoprene coated and vinyl coated gloves are available to protect workers from the chemicals and solutions used for cleanup in food processing operations. Some of these gloves may be lined with cotton and knit material to promote comfort and to protect against temperature extremes in hot or cold environments. Certain styles may also have a textured surface to promote a better grip when working with wet and dry materials.
Economical disposable gloves are available for a variety of food processing and handling applications, laboratory environments and cleanup. While some of these products are made of natural rubber latex for comfort and strength, others are constructed of a variety of synthetic materials such as vinyl, polyvinylchloride (PVC), and nitrile to provide many of the advantages associated with latex without the risks relative to latex allergies.
Most of these gloves offer a high level of dexterity and some are available either polymer coated or lightly powdered to facilitate donning.
A solutions approach to glove management
In today's highly competitive business environment, food processors and manufacturers are constantly seeking ways to reduce their cost of doing business by lowering their cost per unit. Some of these companies are realising that they can benefit financially while keeping their employees safe by taking a solutions approach to hand protection and other personal protective equipment (PPE).
A safety solutions approach involves identifying critical issues in the process, analysing the applications and climate in which hand protection and other PPE products are used, reviewing the existing safety program procedures and creating solutions that will result in the most effective and cost-efficient safety program.
A solutions approach considers the total cost of use, including both direct costs (cost of the gloves and cost of injury) and indirect costs (lost productivity and administrative burden). It also identifies opportunities for standardising hand protection and PPE products and purchasing personal protection products from a single provider, which may result in an inventory and stock keeping unit (SKU) reduction while potentially reducing waste.
An in-depth critical analysis should be conducted in conjunction with a reputable glove manufacturer and/or PPE provider that has the ability to examine and evaluate each application and make recommendations based on facts compiled about the company's work processes. A comprehensive safety program analysis will not only draw upon the expertise of hand protection specialists, but should include experts from the field who can recommend specific workplace improvements.
Whereas worker safety was once considered another cost, a safety program that extends beyond the confines of specific product applications can actually provide revenue. Carefully analysing all of the critical issues in the processing operation and the procedures in the safety program will allow food processors to identify specific cost-cutting opportunities while enhancing worker comfort and safety and maintaining product integrity.