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How to Select the Right Hand Protection for Chemical Hazards

By Karoly Ban Matei | Last updated: July 28, 2021
Key Takeaways

Conducting a thorough hazard assessment will help you find the right gloves for the job.

Caption: Handling chemicals Source: Smederevac / iStock

Chemical-resistant gloves are one of the most common pieces of PPE for handling chemicals in the workplace.

While some overly simplistic safety data sheet recommendations (such as “wear impermeable gloves when handling this product”) might lead users to believe there is some kind of ideal glove that will give adequate protection against every chemical hazard, it simply isn't the case.

There isn't a lot of consistency across chemical hazards. There are a variety of chemicals, each with its own properties, and they can be used in vastly different environments and for variable amounts of time. Because of this, even the best gloves for a given job won't be perfect. The user will have to make some trade-offs.

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This doesn't mean, however, that gloves should not be selected carefully. While there may not be a perfect glove, some options are decidedly better than others.

In this article, we'll look at some of the considerations that should help you find the right hand protection for the chemical hazards in your workplace.

Follow Your Hazard Assessment

The chemical protection glove is a means of controlling a chemical hazard, and determining the appropriate control requires an understanding of the task and the hazards inherent to it. Selecting the proper glove requires a job hazard assessment that takes various factors into account, including:

  • The task at hand
  • User characteristics, preferences, and limitations
  • The environment where the task is performed

The Task

Start with an accurate description of the task. This description should not only be sequential (enumerating the steps required to complete the task) but also descriptive, providing details about:

  • The main chemical that will be handled. Needless to say, the assessment should include a review of the safety data sheet (SDS) and manufacturer’s specifications.
  • What is the outcome of hand exposure? Is it limited to irritation, can it create a burn or rash, or will it result in immediate and irreversible skin damage? Can it be absorbed through the skin and affect the entire body? The worse the potential outcome, the higher the level of protection a glove should provide.
  • Other chemicals involved in the task against which protection is required. While one glove material might offer the best protection against the main chemical, a more versatile material will be required if it does not offer adequate protection against the other chemicals.
  • How the user will interact with the substance and be exposed to the hazard. Will the user handle closed containers and the gloves are required just in case the substance leaks? Can the user be exposed to an occasional splash? Or does the user fully immerse his or her hands in the chemical product when executing the task? This will dictate, among other things, the length of the glove and if it needs to seamlessly connect with other chemical protective PPE, such as sleeves or a costume.
  • How long the user is in contact with the substance. This will help determine what permeation rate and breakthrough time are acceptable, as well as the thickness of the glove material.
  • The intensity of the manual labor and level of dexterity required. A thick, heavy glove can be adequate for a low-dexterity task, such as transporting pails. High-dexterity tasks like operating a detailed control panel, on the other hand, will require thinner, more flexible gloves. If a forceful grip is required, then consideration should also be given to the texture of the glove.

(Learn more about Chemical-Resistant Glove Materials)

User Factors

While this selection might involve more subjective criteria, it is very important nonetheless. Remember that OSHA’s general requirements for PPE, 1910.132.(d)(1)(iii), require employers to ensure that the PPE “fits each affected employee.“

Consideration should be given to the following aspects:

  • Glove size. Getting the size right is important not only to ensure user comfort (by not restricting circulation or falling off their hands), but to ensure it does not introduce additional hazards, such as getting caught in moving parts or product entering a glove with too wide of a cuff.
  • User preference. When different types/models of gloves provide adequate protection, the employer should consider the user preference in the selection criteria, as long as this does not impose undue hardship on the employer. Users might prefer one glove over another based on thermal comfort, sensation to skin when wearing, flexibility, whether it is lined or unlined, and so on.
  • Allergic reactions. Some materials, such as latex and to a lesser extent nitrile, can cause allergic reactions to sensitized employees, and alternative materials should be provided to them.

Work Environment

The work environment can also impose limitations when selecting a chemically resistant glove. While the first consideration is resistivity to the chemical substance, additional qualities should be considered in the selection process to ensure the glove does not create additional hazards or that it provides other benefits to the user. Among others, we should consider:

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  • Temperature. In cold environments, a lined glove or a liner under the glove may be required to provide additional thermal protection. On the other hand, in warm environments some chemical-resistant gloves will be too hot and might contribute to heat stress.
    • Additionally, some glove materials are suitable for cold chemical processes, while others perform better in a cold environment. PVC and butyl stay flexible in cold environments, while neoprene is fairly versatile in both cold- and high-temperature environments.
  • Abrasion. Most glove materials perform well in non-abrasive work environments. When abrasion is a factor, gloves made of nitrile, butyl, or reinforced heavy rubber are more suitable.
    • While abrasion can be a problem in terms of durability, the lack of abrasion can be an issue as well. Without abrasion, the user has to intensify their grip to hold materials in their hands. PVC generally provides a good grip on most materials.
  • Sharp points and edges. If cuts or puncture hazards coexist with the chemical hazard, then in addition to chemical resistivity, cut- and puncture-resistant materials should be selected for the glove. While some materials, such as Viton and SilverShield, are very versatile in terms of chemical resistivity, they offer no cut or puncture resistance and should not be used in such environments. Nitrile and PVC have fairly good puncture resistance.

Other Considerations

There are a few other important factors to consider when selecting a chemically resistant glove.

Cost

Besides protection against a specific chemical agent, one of the most used criteria when selecting a glove is the cost. For comparable equal protection against a chemical, the one that is cheaper will be most frequently selected. Butyl and neoprene both provide good protection against alcohols, but butyl is substantially more expensive. Unless its other qualities (such as resistivity to aldehydes, ketones, or peroxide) are imperative in the work environment, there is no reason to take on that additional cost.

Cleaning

Chemically resistant gloves can be separated into single-use gloves and reusable gloves.

Single-use gloves are always substantially cheaper per pair than reusable gloves, making them more attractive on short-term consideration. However, being discarded frequently, the quantity used and the cost of disposal can add up.

Some reusable gloves can be decontaminated at a low cost and with minimal special equipment. When cleaning facilities exist, buying reusable gloves and cleaning them might be more cost-effective in the long run.

Conclusion

Selecting the proper hand protection when dealing with chemical hazards can be a complicated affair. A comprehensive hazard assessment is required and consideration should be given to the task, the user and the work environment, as well as the cost. A review of the SDS and manufacturer specifications is a good starting point, and a discussion with your local PPE supplier will help you narrow down the options and choose the gloves best suited to your needs.

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Written by Karoly Ban Matei | HR and Safety Manager

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Karoly has worked at a senior level (both as an employee and a contractor) for organizations in the construction and manufacturing industries. He has a passion for developing and improving health and safety programs.

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