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Protecting the Hands that Feed
by Sharon Ann Quinn
Frequent contact with blood and bacteria, extreme fluctuations in temperature, sharp knives, and dangerous cutting machines…it’s hardly surprising that the food industry accounts for roughly 15.3 percent of all manufacturing injuries. At the same time, food regulations are getting more stringent every day. Personal protective equipment (PPE) therefore is more important than ever in the food sector. With the majority of food handling operations being manual, efficient hand protection is an excellent starting point.
Recent statistics from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (2010) show that the incidence rate for manufacturing injuries in the food industry lies considerably higher than in general manufacturing: 5.8 compared to 4.4, per 100 workers. Not only do these numbers give an insight into the often risky conditions on the floor, they also define a clear need for more adequate protection.
When considering the procurement of protective equipment, purchasers are often overwhelmed by a seemingly infinite amount of choices. This is especially true for hand protection and gloves, where terms like “gauge,” ”dexterity,” “grip,” “cut resistance,” and “cut protection” may cause confusion. Picking the wrong glove can be expensive—a nightmare for a cost-driven industry like food—and can have a negative impact on productivity. Keeping in mind a few key aspects will stand you in good stead.
A Unique Set of Circumstances
Before determining the necessary steps to assign the right glove to the right task, there is one important consideration to make: The food industry differs greatly from other sectors when it comes to hand protection. In most other industries, automation continues to increase while the need for human intervention diminishes. In contrast, many tasks in the food processing industry are still done by hand. As workers’ hands are in direct contact with cutting and slicing machinery, cut- and puncture-resistance is key but the complexity of the tasks demands dexterity and comfort. Additionally, the hands are exposed to animal blood, fats, and bacteria, which make efficient liquid protection an absolute priority. The rapidly changing legislation concerning food processing and contamination risks backs up that requirement. Last but not least, the carpal tunnel syndrome debate has lowered the proportion of repetitive work in food and other industries. As a result, one worker now has several tasks to attend to, each with their own safety hazards and equipment requirements.
Rethinking the Selection Process
Intensive market research has shown that the classic approach of selecting protection gear through risk categories—mechanical, chemical, and liquid protection—does not work for the food industry. It is rather the protection need—cut resistance, thermal resistance, puncture and abrasion resistance, and liquid resistance that determines which glove is the most suitable. Users need to consider the type of operation (e.g. meat processing, beverages, dairy products, cereal, and milling), the primary type of food handled, and the worker task (e.g. reception of live animals, sawing machines, slicing, cleaning). In this way, it makes far more sense for manufacturers as well as end-users to categorize the equipment by application segments that define the gloves’ purpose: Cut-resistant, thermal-resistant, liners, general-purpose, puncture- and abrasion-resistant, and liquid resistant gloves.
Despite their immediate link with food quality, cut injuries continue to be one of the most common risks in food processing. Prevention requires a thorough understanding of the influences that cause these injuries. Obvious risks are the handling of sharp objects like knives, blades, and cutting tools. Still, there are other contributing factors too, such as the weight of the object being handled, grip, and handling angle, and the fact that workers often have to stand close to each other, which heightens the risk of accidentally hurting one another. These cannot be tackled by equipment alone, but require an analysis of the working conditions, including machine guarding, setup, and training.
In the case of safety gloves, cut resistance is a function of the material composition and, to some extent, thickness. Ensuring that workers wear the proper cut-resistant gloves or sleeves is the first step in lowering the number of cut injuries in the workplace.
Through an abundance of moisture, oils, and fats, food-processing operations can get pretty messy. Most importantly, these substances can make it difficult to handle materials and food particles, thus creating major challenges for hand protection and productivity. In this case, proprietary material blends and surfacing methods can offer a solution for wet, dry, and oily conditions. Each surface pattern or webbing is specifically intended for a certain kind of food processing application. For example, a fish scale pattern could offer a good suction grip for working with wet or fatty food, such as poultry and fish processing, while a sand patch design channels fats and greases away from the surface of the glove and makes handling beef or lamb a lot easier.
Apart from surface and grip, cuffs greatly impact the functionality of a liquid-resistant glove as well. The design of the cuff is applied to a specific type of glove to solve problems associated with the environment and applications for which the glove is used. For instance, most disposable or single-use gloves are used in applications that are wet or oily, thus making a beaded cuff design (which catches droplets of liquids, oils, and chemicals) the most logical solution.
Other variables of importance include material, liners, abrasion, length, and thickness. In materials, natural rubber latex (NRL) and nitrile are the two most common options. NRL is most frequently used in poultry and fish operations, while nitrile is recommended when working with the types of fats inherent in meats like beef, lamb, and pork. When making a choice, keep in mind potential latex allergies as well.
Lined gloves have an internal knitted or woven liner. They are also a good choice for a liquid-resistant glove when worn over cut protection gloves. That adds increased protection and improved sweat management. Flock-lined means the gloves have an internal coating of short cotton fibers that promote easier donning of gloves as well as improved comfort. Not only do lined gloves offer a higher degree of dexterity and tactility than unlined gloves, depending on what type of coverage you are seeking, glove length is also something to consider. Essentially, the longer the glove, the more protection it offers the wearer.
In many food processing operations, workers choose to wear a liner for warmth or moisture management under a cut-resistant glove with a liquid-resistant glove on top. Depending on the type of operation, the reverse (a cut resistant over a liquid-resistant glove), is also possible. In PPE, manufacturers are constantly conducting research to develop a glove that combines the functionalities of several different products.
Closely linked to liquid protection is chemical resistance; an application that’s not too common in food processing but still worth considering when working with harmful chemicals to sanitize food processing operations. Protecting workers’ hands is vital to a successful sanitation program.
When looking at gloves for the food processing market, there’s a relatively even mix of both high performance gloves for interacting directly with raw food products and commoditized single-use gloves. In this heavily regulated industry, it is hardly surprising that disposable gloves take up such a big part of the market as they significantly diminish the risk of contamination. Some of the most commonly used materials are NRL, PVC, and nitrile. Each has its own advantages. For instance, NRL is known for its elasticity, sensitivity, and liquid resistance, while vinyl feels less restricting, and nitrile contains no organic proteins that can cause allergic reactions.
One of the most common misconceptions is that a thicker glove is a better glove. Nowadays, through advances in research and development, many 3 mil gloves offer the same or even better tensile strength than a standard 5 mil glove. Therefore, it is important to consider other factors, such as the type of food product being handled and which grip pattern is best suited for it, when choosing disposable gloves.
In many food processing applications, workers wear a disposable or liquid protective glove over a cut-resistant or thermal glove to increase grip or help protect the under-glove from becoming wet or soiled quickly. Because disposables are relatively thin and flexible, they are well-suited for this purpose as bulkiness is kept to a minimum.
The environment ambient temperature where the gloves will be worn, the tasks the workers will be performing, the length of contact with extreme cold or heat, and the type of materials being handled (wet, chemicals, or raw food products) are things to consider when choosing the right glove for thermal protection. For example, working outdoors in the cold or working in a freezer environment will require two different pairs of gloves. The same holds true for heat protection gloves. In both cases, the greater the protection required (extreme heat or cold and more than 15 minutes of continual contact), the thicker and heavier the gloves will need to be.
Some thermal gloves are designed to be used along with others. In many meat processing applications, a cold protective thermal liner is worn under a cut protective glove or a liquid protective liner over a cut protective glove. For cold storage or freezer applications, a cold protective liner is sometimes worn under a general purpose or liquid protective glove.
There are many different factors at play when hand protection is really taken seriously. Going through the entire cycle of analyzing your own specific needs and picking the right product may seem like a daunting task. However, making the wrong choice can prove to be an expensive mistake. And it’s not just in the employees’ interest. Taking the right safety measures will increase your business’ efficiency, improve productivity, and help lower costs.
Quinn is senior director, specialty markets, Global Business Unit at Ansell. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.