What You Need to Know to Keep Your Hands Safe from Chemical Exposure
You don't have to sacrifice comfort or performance to get adequate protection.
Protecting workers exposed to chemicals is critical, and especially when it comes to the hands that come in contact with hazardous chemicals on a daily basis. Employers should know what products are available in the marketplace and how to make the right choice to keep their workers' hands safe.
Know Your Chemicals
Choosing the best hand protection starts with knowing a thing or two about the chemicals used in your workplace. It's important to know, among other things:
- What effect they have when they come in contact with exposed skin
- How they are used in your workplace
- How they are transported across the worksite
- How are stored
- What gloves will provide the most effective protection for workers who have to handle these chemicals
And it's important to take all chemicals into account. Chemicals are used in so many business applications that we often forget to take them seriously as a safety hazard, whether it's the paint used in automotive manufacturing, the chemicals used to create pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, the pesticides and fertilizers used in agricultural operations, the cleaning products used to wipe down surfaces or clean the floors, or the industrial-grade chemicals used in emergency clean-up operations. Just because you're not dealing with a highly corrosive acid doesn't mean you can afford to overlook the risks they pose.
OSHA PPE Requirements
Selecting the right PPE is a complex process and should be made part of your overall safety program. Employers should take into consideration a variety of factors, including:
- Identifying all known hazards
- Specifying their pathway for exposure (learn about The Top 4 Pathways for Chemical Exposure)
- The performance requirements of PPE that is to act as a barrier to chemical hazards
OSHA notes that the specific degree of protection afforded by any given PPE will be material-hazard specific. What this means is that some protective material will be adequate to protect against some substances but could be ineffective at protecting against another. In fact, some chemicals are so strong that manufacturers have yet to discover a PPE material that will last through continued uses. It's important, therefore, to provide replacement PPE as needed, according to the manufacturer's guidelines.
Matching the PPE to the employee's work requirements and task-specific conditions takes into account the durability of the materials, such as tear strength and seam strength, as well as weather, temperature, and other site-specific conditions. In some cases, layers of PPE may be necessary to provide sufficient protection during the work day.
Considerations When Combining Chemicals
When considering PPE choices for handling and transporting chemicals, you will need to look beyond the chemical itself and also consider how it will react with other chemicals used on your job site. Be sure to also consider the PPE itself, since the chemicals might react to the the protective gloves' materials or coating. Nitrile, for instance, provides good protection from lubricating oils but not acetone, a paint remover. Neoprene is a good choice for many pharmaceutical agents but ineffective against methylene chloride, another common paint remover.
Any time you get a prescription from the pharmacy, your pharmacist will tell you what to avoid combining with your medication. It's the same with chemicals used on the job: potentially mixing chemicals adds increased complexity to your PPE choices, and sometimes pose a serious risk to workers. Consult a qualified chemist to learn the proper use and the right protection for workers.
This same chemist will also be useful in identifying possible reactions to chemicals on the skin and instructing you on how to treat accidental exposure. When dealing with chemicals, have measures in place to quickly and effectively deal with skin irritation, rashes, and chemical burns.
The costs associated with this is serious business. In 2014, there were 33,600 reported incidences of recordable occupational skin diseases, carrying an estimated price tag of $1 billion in the U.S. alone. These incidents range from chemicals being absorbed by the skin and causing damage to it to chemicals attacking the nervous system, reaching the bloodstream, and potentially causing organ damage.
What to Look for in Protective Gloves
Chemical PPE gloves and materials are evaluated and rated on three characteristics:
- Penetration: how much chemical moves through the product material on initial contact
- Permeation: how much chemical seeps through over time
- Degradation: how fast the material physically changes after exposure
If your workers will be handling chemicals frequently or for a long period of time, make sure to get gloves with good permeation ratings. And if the degradation rating indicates that the gloves will not last very long after exposure, keep a stock of replacement gloves on hand.
Workers expect comfort, performance, and protection in a pair of safety gloves. Comfort may seem like a frivolous luxury, but it should be treated as a serious safety feature. If gloves are uncomfortable or make it too difficult to do the job tasks required, the worker will to tempted to remove the them or ignore other safety requirements in order to work comfortably.
Some non-permeable gloves can be protective but make the workers’ hands hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable, making it hard to finish work that requires dexterity.
Today’s workers do not have to choose between comfort, performance, or protection. Through new technologies, materials and creative approaches, glove manufacturers are finding new and better ways to address the many needs of the worker without compromising protection from potentially dangerous chemicals (see Selecting the Right PPE for Women to learn how to properly equip all your workers).
Significant improvements in moisture management, either with the glove itself or in combination with a liner, add comfort as well as the ability to move and perform work. Gloves that improve grip are always valuable, and layering remains a viable option in many cases. For example, wearing cut-protection gloves under chemical gloves, or thermal management gloves under or over chemical gloves. These simple solutions can address the PPE challenge of protection and comfort (learn more about the Trends and Technologies in Making Cut Protective Gloves Truly Comfortable).
The list of protective measures in work environments can sometimes get complicated. When faced with uncertainty to questions, employers should reach out to the experts for assistance. The leading manufacturers always offer qualified and professional advice about how to stay compliant and keep your workers safe.
For more Hand and Arm Protection content, check out our Hand and Arm Protection Knowledge Center.