Most workers don't think twice about putting on safety gloves when handling potentially hazardous objects or substances. It simply makes good sense to protect their hands from danger. But fewer workers stop to consider whether the work they’re doing calls for greater protection for the rest of their arms.

The National Safety Council reports that arm injuries accounted for about 5 percent of injuries involving days away from work in 2017. And while it may not seem like much, that 5 percent represents a significant number of affected workers, recordables, and lost dollars.

It’s not hard to understand, then, why protective sleeves are an important part of the PPE toolkit for workers whose arms are at risk of injury – and they’re the perfect complement to a good pair of safety gloves.

(Learn about 12 Types of Hand Protection Gloves.)

In this article, we’ll discuss why protective sleeves are so important, the different types of sleeves that are available, and how to select the right ones for you and your job.

Understanding the Importance of Protective Sleeves

While in many instances gloves offer workers sufficient protection against cuts, heat, and other potential hazards, there are some applications that demand more. For workers handling large objects like sheet metal or who must reach into or around obstructions, like HVAC workers, exposed arms can be a significant safety risk.

This is where protective sleeves come into play. This type of PPE picks up where glove protection leaves off, guarding workers against abrasions, cuts, scrapes, heat-related injuries, and more from the wrist up.

There are a variety of different protective sleeve options depending on what you want to achieve and the hazards present in the job at hand. The most popular, however, are resistant to cuts and heat.

Cut Protection

Sleeves intended to protect against cuts, scrapes, and abrasions are made of durable fabrics that resist these kinds of hazards. There are different levels of cut protection, which means that not every protective sleeve that resists cuts is up to every task.

You’ll want to look for the ANSI/ISEA cut level, which is a 9-point scale that categorizes materials based on the weight (in grams) needed to cut through them with 20 mm blade travel. This scale is also used to rate gloves, and it’s a good idea to ensure your protective sleeves offer the same degree of protection as your gloves do (perhaps slightly less, depending on the application).

(Learn more in Cut Resistant Gloves: A Guide to Cut Resistance Levels.)

Cut-resistant sleeves are often used in:

  • Manufacturing
  • Food service
  • Glass handling
  • Agricultural applications
  • Wood handling
  • Automotive assembly

Heat Protection

It’s important to note that sleeves geared toward heat protection aren’t rated the same way as gloves are. This is because they’re used in an entirely different way – employees won’t be picking up and holding hot items with their arms like they would with their hands. Instead, sleeves are generally rated for "incidental contact." So while they’re still tested the same way under ASTM F1060, most will never see the 1 to 5 ratings that gloves get.

Hazardous Materials

In some cases, sleeves may also be used for protection against hazardous materials. For example, where workers are exposed to chemical splashes or must handle other potentially toxic substances.

You want to ensure that protective sleeves being used with oils and chemicals have been tested with them – after a worker is splashed isn’t the time to find out that the material the sleeve is made of breaks down when it comes into contact with a particular substance.

How to Select the Right Protective Sleeves for You and Your Workers

As with most types of personal protective equipment, protective sleeves aren’t one-size-fits-all or even one-style-fits-all. To determine what kind of protective sleeves are right for you and the job you’re doing, it’s important to begin with a hazard assessment. After all, how can you protect against hazards if you don’t know what they are?

Once you know what you’re up against, here are five key considerations to work through.

1. Protective Sleeve Style and Length

There are two main types of sleeves: sleeves only, and sleeves with integrated thumb holes. The thumb holes allow for greater comfort and dexterity and help ensure that the sleeves won’t ride up, exposing skin and creating a safety risk.

Safety sleeves come in various lengths, ranging from about 10 inches to 22 inches, though some manufacturers make shorter and longer ones. The right length depends on two things: the risks of the job and the length of the wearer’s arm. It’s important not to choose a sleeve that’s too long, since a sleeve that's been rolled down can get caught in machinery.

In general, the following holds true:

  • 10-inch sleeves cover most of the forearm
  • 18-inch sleeves cover past the elbow
  • 22-inch sleeves cover from the wrist to the shoulder

(Find out why One Size Does Not Fit All When It Comes to Protective Clothing.)

2. Required Cut Resistance, Heat Resistance, or Both

This consideration should be directly tied to your hazard identification, which you should have completed before even beginning to look at sleeves. In order to keep workers safe, you must ensure that the sleeves you are considering measure up to the hazards they’ll be up against.

Some fabrics are inherently more cut- or heat-resistant than others. For example, latex and leather offer minimal protection against cuts and abrasions, while high-performance materials (like Kevlar), engineered yarns, and metal mesh have proven to be excellent in this aspect.

3. Other Industry Standards

If the industry you’re working in has further specific standards, you need to take them into account. The food service industry, for example, has additional criteria that all gloves and sleeves must meet to be suitable for use in the work environment.

4. Comfort, Fit, and Function

Comfort is critical. When workers feel uncomfortable, they tend to start shedding layers of PPE – and a sleeve would be one of the first things to go.

Jason Lee, manager of Health and Safety services at Magid Glove, notes that the most common complaint he hears from workers is that their sleeves are hot and uncomfortable. To combat this problem, workers should have an opportunity to try on various protective sleeve options to ensure they’re comfortable and won’t interfere with the job they’re doing.

Since arms come in all different sizes, it’s also important to make sure you provide and stock sleeves that will cater to everyone.

5. Price

Price is last on this list for a good reason. While cost is certainly a factor when purchasing PPE, it should not be the deciding factor. Those who opt for the cheapest protective sleeves on the market put themselves and their employees at significant risk, since the cheapest sleeves often provide the least protection from cuts, abrasions, and heat. And while this might be okay for the most basic of applications, it could spell disaster for workers who require a higher degree of protection to remain safe while on the job.

The best way to make your final decision is to first go through the first four factors listed above. Once you’ve narrowed your list down to a few options that meet the necessary safety criteria, then you can decide which one (or ones) suits your budget.

(See Why Price Isn't Everything When It Comes to Safety Gloves for related reading.)

Conclusion

Protective sleeves may not be as widely used as gloves, but they play a key role in ensuring the health and safety of workers whose arms are at risk for cuts, burns, splashes, and other hazards. As with most PPE, it’s critical to understand the hazards so that you know what you’re looking for. Then, focus on the five key factors we discussed above to make sure you’re selecting the right sleeve for the job.

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