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Selecting the right work glove for the right application can help food processors and handlers improve worker safety and productivity while ensuring that food is safe and reducing costs. 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 sanitize 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 foodborne pathogens. This is especially important as the food industry faces heightened bio-threats against the nation’s food supply.
The Correct 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 and may prefer to work barehanded, which 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 resulting 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 deboning meat in a cooler may wear three pairs of gloves: a poly/cotton glove worn next to the skin for warmth, a cut-resistant glove to prevent cuts and abrasions, and a vinyl, nitrile or latex outer glove to protect the hands from moisture.
The correct glove for the task often will 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 poultry, raw potatoes, fish, knives, sharpeners and glass. 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.
Because glove particles resulting from knife cuts can sometimes contaminate foods, a detectable glove is now available that can be detected in the product before it leaves the plant. This glove is described in detail below.
Some gloves have distinct colors 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 color that will be easier to identify if glove particles should contaminate the product. Colors on the cuff indicate glove size, which facilitates glove size selection.
When selecting gloves that will come into direct contact with food, manufacturers and processors should make sure the glove materials meet Food and 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 fibers and materials, including cotton, Kevlar, Spectra and stainless steel mesh – to name a few. Some coated gloves also provide excellent cut resistance.
Advanced fiber technology represented by yarns such as Kevlar and Spectra enable glove manufacturers to provide lightweight products that are super 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 temperatures up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit for short intervals. Kevlar has the feel of cotton but provides a higher level of cut protection without sacrificing dexterity.
Spectra yarns blend polyethylene and polypropylene (plastics) to provide incredible strength and cut resistance. Gloves made of Spectra are often much cooler than those made of Kevlar, but tend to provide less dexterity.
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 vs. distance curve, which is used to determine the load required to cut through the material at 25 millimeters, which is the reference load.
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.
As mentioned above, contamination resulting from glove particles in food products has become a very costly problem for some processors. Detectable gloves are now available that incorporate non-metallic materials that are easily detected by standard metal detectors in food processing plants. If a glove particle should contaminate the product, it can be quickly detected and isolated for removal, thereby minimizing waste and rework.
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 underneath 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 natural rubber latex, 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 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 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 realizing 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, analyzing 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 standardizing 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 analyzing 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.
About the author:
Scott Atkinson is the business development manager for the food service and food processing division of Ansell Healthcare Inc. Headquartered in Red Bank, N.J., Ansell Healthcare is the leading provider of hand and clothing apparel, along with productivity solutions that enable companies to achieve and surpass their cost and productivity objectives. Working directly with plant personnel, Ansell uses its experience, knowledge and proven products to develop programs that guarantee results in the areas of safety and efficiency. For more information, visit www.ansellpro.com.