Under what conditions should workers be offered cold protection gloves?
OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.138 states: “Employers shall select and require employees to use appropriate hand protection when employees' hands are exposed to hazards such as those from... harmful temperature extremes.” It discusses hand protection from extreme heat, but the text has little to say about the opposite extreme - protecting hands from cold.
Even in defining what constitutes “cold” in its cold stress guide, OSHA is cagey with using numbers. Instead, it basically says that cold is all relative and subjective. So, if there is no objective safety standard on what constitutes cold, when is cold protection needed? Seems simple enough – when a task requires a worker to be in an environment that feels cold, either inside or out, they should be offered gloves. This seems like common sense, but that isn’t the only consideration when it comes to cold protection hand-wear.
In extreme cold, frostnip or frostbite can occur in as little as five minutes. Generally, workers aren't going to set to a task in -80F windchill with no gloves, so we don’t have to think too hard about bare hands in that extreme scenario. However, the risk of frostbite has to be considered even when it isn’t a deep freeze. The National Weather Service's windchill chart lists a 30-minutes frostbite time in just 36°F (2°C) windchill. In my part of Canada, that’s autumn or spring weather and it wouldn't be unusual to see people working outside with no gloves. A savvy safety advisor may choose to keep an eye on the weather before each shift and offer gloves even if they aren't requested when the temperature approaches this level. Depending on the activity, 36°F might be plenty cold enough to run into problems.
When you work in cold environments, you often have to handle tools, equipment and materials that have cooled to match the ambient temperature. Yet, despite being the same temperature as the surrounding air, objects (particularly metal ones) are far more effective at freezing hands! Steel is over 1900 times as thermally conductive as air, and has high thermal diffusivity making it very efficient at removing heat from hands. In some industries, steel surfaces might be ubiquitous in the work environment, and placing hands on them is not always practically avoidable. Frostbite can result quickly, and in extreme cold this could happen even with gloves on if they are inadequate.
The type of activity can also have an impact on the hazard that a cold environment poses for hand health. Hand-arm vibration syndrome (also known as HAVS, Raynaud's syndrome, or vibration white finger) is an incurable neuropathic condition in the hands that affects motor ability, sensation and circulation. Its development is related to use of vibrating tools on a long-term basis, but I mention it here because working in cold environments is thought to contribute. While it isn't fully known how cold plays a role in developing the condition, keeping hands warm while working with vibrating machinery may help mitigate the effect by dampening vibrations and facilitating circulation. HAVS can be a nasty affliction, and avoiding it is a strong argument for using gloves even when it might not be cold enough to necessarily need them.
Gloves may need to fit a number of purposes at once, so appropriate hand-wear should be selected to meet all requirements. Ideally, gloves should consist of several layers, providing insulation and keeping moisture away from the hands and any other protection needed. Each layer of the glove should be appropriate to its purpose, and all together they can’t be so cumbersome that it creates a temptation to remove them. Inner, insulating layers like wool or a suitable synthetic fiber work well because they don't hold moisture due to their structure. Additional layers like Kevlar may be included to provide complementary types of protection, such as cut or impact resistance, grip, flame resistance or insulation from electricity. Careful hazard assessment can help to determine which glove is right for the application.
More Q&As from our experts
- What is wet bulb temperature and how is it related to heat stress?
- Do I really need electrolyte drinks to stay hydrated on the job?
- How do I choose the best head protection for my job?