Workplace Solutions Hand/arm protection

Preventing contact dermatitis

How can employers reduce the risk of contact dermatitis for workers using safety gloves?

Contact dermatitis
Source: DSM Dyneema

Responding is Matt Reid, regional marketing manager, Americas for High Performance Textiles at DSM Dyneema, Stanley, NC.

A focus on supplying gloves that meet certain cut level numbers has driven manufacturers to incorporate materials, such as fiberglass, that can achieve desired scores when tested according to current methods. Fiberglass (continuous glass filament) has traditionally been one of the most common materials incorporated into protective gloves. It is inexpensive and adds a significant amount of hardness to boost cut resistance, as measured by current standard tests used to calculate cut level. Fiberglass also has a high strength-to-weight ratio. When used in textiles, it withstands the multi-directional movement of knits, increasing strength without adding additional bulk or weight.1

However, there is more to this story than good test results and low cost. The thin fiberglass filaments used in glove materials easily break under impact, ceasing to provide any cut protection whatsoever at points where the fiber’s integrity has been compromised. Further, these broken fibers can irritate the skin, causing worker discomfort and producing a rash called contact dermatitis. Even when encapsulated between layers of a non-irritating material such as nylon or polyester, broken fiberglass fibers can pose a hidden hazard. The encapsulation may mask breakage, making it nearly impossible to detect that gloves are damaged and therefore less protective.

Manufacturers can avoid the performance and health issues of fiberglass by choosing advanced cut-resistant materials that have achieved high cut level scores of up to EN 388 Level 5, and performed exceptionally well on the jobsite without the need to add this type of reinforcement.

Gloves made with this advanced technology offer major advantages over fiberglass-reinforced textiles:

  • Sustained high cut-resistant performance. Because common workplace incidents such as impact and abrasion do not cause these fibers to break, no weak spots are created and the added protection provided by mineral micro-particle reinforcement remains intact.
  • Improved worker comfort. Fiberglass reinforcement can reduce wearer comfort, a key factor in employee compliance with jobsite safety requirements. In addition to itching and irritation caused by exposure to broken filaments, fiberglass often adds stiffness and is detrimental to the flexibility many workers find critical to job performance. In comparison, advanced ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene fibers are smooth, soft and flexible and can be used to manufacture very lightweight, thin, cool and comfortable glove designs.
  • Excellent value. Although gloves made with fiberglass may cost less initially, over time the durability, consistent performance and comfort of advanced-level material deliver greater value. This specialized fiber can be laundered to extend its useful life, retains its cut-resistance score even when subjected to workplace stresses and provides a superior experience for workers, helping to support compliance that can drive down the costs of hand injuries.

Cut level scores for glove materials tell only part of the protection story. Ratings achieved with current test methods are one-dimensional, reflecting only controlled lab conditions instead of messy and variable real-world scenarios. Companies should look for a glove that features advanced materials so they can avoid the risk of workplace injuries or contact dermatitis.

1. The Superior Book of Cut Protection.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

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