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Choosing Gloves To Protect Skin

Published: 10th Sep 2011 in OSA Magazine

The Health and Safety Executive is an independent regulator with a remit of ‘putting those who put others in danger before the courts’. The HSE also provides support to businesses. Here they share their wisdom about the use of gloves as a form of PPE, while suggesting numerous alternatives.

Protecting against substances in the workplace

The most effective and reliable way to prevent skin problems is to design and operate processes to avoid contact with harmful substances. So take all the steps you can to achieve this before resorting to the use of protective gloves.

Protective gloves tend to be less effective than other control measures, but if avoiding contact is impractical or is not enough to protect employees, then gloves may be needed. When you select protective gloves, base your choice on the work, the wearer and the environment they work in. You need to consider the following five factors:
• Identify the substances handled
• Identify all other hazards
• Consider the type and duration of contact
• Consider the user – size and comfort
• Consider the task
• Identify the substances handled

Gloves differ in design, material and thickness. No glove material will protect against all substances and no gloves will protect against a specific substance forever.

Substances in products, created by work processes and ‘natural’ substances

Some products contain substances that can harm the skin or enter the body through skin contact. The product label or material safety data sheet should tell you if this is the case. These may also give information on what protective gloves to use. If this is missing then try contacting the product supplier or manufacturer for help.

Not all harmful substances come in labelled containers. Substances can be generated during work activities (e.g. wood dust from sanding, solder fumes). Remember that handling some ‘natural’ substances like foods and flowers can cause skin problems too. If you are unsure if a substance produced by a work process or a natural substance you are handling is harmful, you can get help from a variety of sources, e.g. your trade association, from the HSE website or from the HSE info line.

To protect hands from substances or chemicals choose a glove that meets the European Standard EN374-3. But make sure the glove material you choose protects against the substances being handled.

Glove manufacturers usually produce charts to show how well their gloves perform against different substances. Manufacturers use three key terms: breakthrough time, permeation rate and degradation.

Breakthrough time is the time a chemical takes to permeate through the glove material and reach the inside. Permeation is a process by which a chemical can pass through a material without going through pinholes or pores or other visible openings. This tells you how long you can use a glove for.

The permeation rate is the amount that then permeates through. The higher the rate the more of the chemical will move through the glove. Choose a low rate.
Some chemicals can destroy the glove material. It may get harder, softer or may swell. Degradation indicates the deterioration of the glove material on contact with a specific chemical. Choose gloves with an excellent or good degradation rating.

You can use manufacturers’ charts to identify the best gloves for the chemicals being handled or glove manufacturers can help with this step.

The performance of glove materials can vary slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer, so base your selection on the correct manufacturers’ data.

Keep in mind that the manufacturers’ data is for pure chemicals, not mixtures. When you mix chemicals, their properties can change.As a rule of thumb, base your glove selection on the component in the mixture with the shortest breakthrough time. However, the only way to be absolutely sure that a glove performs well against the mixture is to have it tested.

Some people develop an allergy to gloves made of natural rubber latex. Choose non-latex gloves unless there are no alternatives that give the protection needed. If you must use latex, choose low-protein, powder- free gloves.

Identify all other hazards for hands

Identify any other hazards present. For example, is there a risk of, abrasion, cuts, puncture or high temperature? There are chemical protective gloves that also give protection against mechanical hazards (those marked EN388) and thermal hazards (those marked EN407).

Consider the type and duration of contact
Will gloves be worn for a short time, intermittently or for long periods? Comfort is more important for longer wear. Generally, thicker, robust gloves offer greater protection than thinner gloves, but thinner gloves offer better dexterity.

Will contact be from occasional splashes or by total immersion? Short gloves are fine to protect against splashes. If hands are immersed (and you can justify that this is unavoidable), choose a length greater than the depth of immersion.

Consider the user – size and comfort

Gloves should fit the wearer. Tight gloves can make hands feel tired and loose their grip. Too large gloves can create folds; these can impair work and be uncomfortable. It can help to use sizing charts, which you can see here: http://www.hse.gov.uk/skin/employ/ glovesizes.htm

Comfortable gloves are more likely to be worn. Involve employees in the selection process and give them a reasonable choice to pick from. This can sometimes promote buy-in to wearing them.

Hands can sweat inside gloves making them uncomfortable to wear. Getting staff to take glove breaks, or removing gloves for a minute or so before hands get too hot and sweaty can help air the hands. You could also consider supplying separate cotton gloves to wear under protective gloves. These can increase comfort by absorbing sweat. They can be laundered and reused.

Consider the task

Gloves should not hamper the task. If wet or oily objects are handled, choose gloves with a roughened, textured surface for good grip. Select gloves that balance protection with dexterity. Ensure the gloves selected meet any standards required for the task, e.g. sterile gloves, food grade gloves. Consider whether colour is important, e.g. to show up contamination.

Once you have selected your gloves tell your employees how to use them properly to protect themselves. Tell them when they should be replaced and if they are reusable gloves, ask them to rinse them before removal (if practical) and tell them how they should be stored. Review their use periodically and get employee feedback – this can help check that the gloves are performing properly.

How do I prevent skin problems in my business?

Does this concern me? Yes, particularly if you work in one of these high-risk occupations.

These include:
• Catering
• Hairdressing
• Health services
• Dentistry
• Printing
• Metal Machining
• Motor vehicle repair
• Construction

You can find in depth details about all of the above applications on the HSE website.

Alternative applications

I don’t work in one of these areas. Should it still concern me?

You could still have a problem. Find out what your workers are in contact with at work.

Some products contain substances that can harm the skin or enter the body through skin contact.The product label or material safety data sheet should tell you if this is the case. Look for hazard warning signs, risk and safety phrases.
These are explained in more detail on the HSE’s ‘CHIP’ web pages, which can be found here: http://www.hse.gov.uk/chip/index.htm

Not all harmful substances come in labelled containers.As mentioned before, substances can be generated during work activities (e.g. wood dust from sanding, solder fumes). If you are unsure if a substance emitted from a work process or natural substance you are handling is harmful, you can get help from a variety of sources. Some materials are listed in tables listed here: http://www.hse.gov.uk/skin/professional/ causes/agents.htm

Water/‘wet work’

Prolonged or frequent contact with water, particularly in combination with soaps and detergents, can cause dermatitis. ‘Wet work’ is the term used to describe tasks in the workplace that can cause this.

If their work does involve skin contact like this you can take simple steps to reduce the risk and prevent skin problems.

What should I do about it?

Use the APC approach.

Avoid direct contact between unprotected hands and substances, products and wet work where this is sensible and practical, for instance:
• Get rid of the substance/product/wet work altogether
• Substitute the product/substance for something less harmful
• Introduce controls (such as tools or equipment) to keep a safe working distance between skin and substances/products/wet work – see the HSE website to learn more about the term safe working distance

Protect the skin. Avoiding contact will not always be possible, so:
• Provide suitable personal protective equipment such as gloves. To protect the hands from ‘wet work’ choose a glove that meets the European Standard EN374-2.This shows that the gloves are waterproof. Other choices can be complex, and you can get further advice on glove selection here on the HSE website
• Provide mild skin cleaning cream that will do the job and washing facilities with hot and cold water
• Tell workers to wash their hands before eating and drinking, and before wearing gloves. Suitable cleaning systems exist for mobile workers
• Remind workers to wash any contamination from their skin promptly
• Provide soft cotton or disposable paper towels for drying the skin. Tell workers about the importance of thorough drying after washing
• Protect the skin by moisturising as often as possible and particularly at the end of the day – this replaces the natural oils that help keep the skin’s protective barrier working properly
• Use suitable pre-work creams Check hands regularly for the first signs of itchy, dry or red skin:
• When skin problems are spotted early, they can be treated, which can stop them from getting too bad
• Seek advice from a medical practitioner if you suspect that you may have skin problems. Further advice is available on skin checks
• Your staff need to know about the simple steps. Further information and tools for you to inform and train workers are available on the HSE’s training and information resources pages, which you can find here: http://www.hse.gov.uk/skin/professional/ trainingresources.htm
• Finally, check regularly that all these actions are carried out in practice

Individuals who suspect they may have a skin problem should visit their General Practitioner for advice and treatment if needed. The NHS also has useful information and advice on dermatitis, urticarial, and skin cancer.

Types of skin diseases – dermatitis

Work-related contact dermatitis, sometimes called eczema, can be caused by the skin coming into contact with:
• chemicals
• frequent contact with water, e.g. more than two hours a day
• biological agents, e.g. plants, bacteria and fungi
• physical agents, e.g. vibration, UV radiation
• mechanical abrasion, e.g. abrasive substances such as sand and rough edged surfaces and tools

Contact dermatitis

As the term implies, contact dermatitis is a disease resulting from skin coming into contact with an outside agent. These agents can be chemical, biological or physical in nature. There are two types of contact dermatitis associated with skin exposure to chemicals: irritant contact dermatitis (ICD) and allergic contact dermatitis (ACD).

The signs of contact dermatitis include redness, swelling, blistering, flaking and cracking. It can lead to itching, bleeding and pus formation.

Irritant contact dermatitis (ICD)

ICD is a local inflammation of the skin. It can develop after a short heavy single exposure (acute), or be due to repeated and prolonged exposure (chronic) to hazardous agents, including chemicals. In some cases, more than one agent will be involved; for example water and detergents.

The irritant action of a chemical depends on its ability to cause changes to the horny (outside) layer of the skin. Some substances can remove skin oils, fats and moisture from the surface. This action reduces the protective action of the skin and increases the ability of the irritant substance to enter or infiltrate the skin.

Allergic contact dermatitis (ACD)

ACD develops in stages. The allergic reaction begins with a process called sensitisation. Sensitisation starts when an allergic substance (e.g. chromium in cement) penetrates the skin. This provokes a number of immunological responses. The process can last from four days to three weeks.

When a sensitised person is re-exposed to an allergenic substance, white blood cells recognise it and react to protect the body. But they also release chemicals called lymphokines. These cause itching, pain, redness, swelling and blisters on the skin. Once sensitised, the allergic reaction is likely to remain with the individual for life. If further contact is prevented, the level of sensitivity may gradually decline.

Occupations affected by contact dermatitis

Dermatitis affects most industries and business sectors:
• agriculture/horticulture
• catering and food processing
• chemicals
• cleaning
• construction
• engineering
• hairdressing/beauty care
• healthcare
• offshore
• printing
• rubber

These are the business sectors with the highest risk of work-related dermatitis. But remember, dermatitis can affect people working in all sectors.

Contact urticarial – immediate contact reactions

The skin contact with an irritant results in itchy rash within minutes to an hour. They disappear within 24 hours, usually within a few hours. Contact urticaria is also known as nettle rash or hives. It is typified by the wheal (swellings) and flare at the site of contact. The affected person may suffer from itching, tingling or burning sensations.

There are other types of urticaria. This includes immune sensitised reaction and happens in people who have previously become sensitised to a causative agent, e.g. latex protein in rubber gloves. This type of reaction is also called ACD.

Managing the risks from skin exposure

Once a skin contamination problem has been identified, possible remedies need to be considered to prevent ill health. Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (as amended) (COSHH), employers have to make sure that employees’ exposure to hazardous materials by skin contact and absorption through the skin is either prevented or, where this is not reasonably practicable, adequately controlled.

The following advice should help you to develop good control practice and there is also basic, straightforward information on the following causes of skin disease link, and advice on how to identify the symptoms: http://www.hse.gov.uk/skin/professional/ causes/index.htm

Prevent exposure by elimination or substitution

The first consideration should be to prevent exposure, either through:
• elimination of the substance with the potential to cause health effects following skin contact; for example, using a scraper to remove paint instead of paint stripping with a solvent
• substituting the substance – choose something less hazardous; for example, replacing an aggressive cleaning product with a milder one, or even changing the form of a substance, such as changing a powder to a less dusty pellet form

Design and operate processes to minimise emission and transmission

If elimination or substitution is impractical, then the next most effective way of preventing skin disease is to design and operate processes to avoid contact in the first place. Here are some of the options:
• Completely enclose the source and automate the process; this removes skin exposure for normal operations, limiting it to cleaning and maintenance tasks
• Enclose as much of the process as possible and use extraction ventilation to capture substances at their point of release; this does not remove the risk from direct handling, but helps to prevent the spread of contamination to workplace surfaces and it protects employees working nearby
• Prevent transmission by putting up a shield between the employee and the source, e.g. a splashguard or screen
• Avoid direct handling of substances or contaminated work articles
• use mechanical handling or tools such as scoops, hooks or tongs
• consider soluble packaging, e.g. pesticide concentrates can be used in water soluble sachets
• use automated dosing systems
• Limit the spread of contamination by having clear ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ areas
• Reduce transmission by increasing the distance between the worker and the source – apply a ‘safe working distance’, e.g. use long-handled tools to minimise skin contact
• Employ good housekeeping; where contamination is unavoidable keep levels low by cleaning regularly; choose easy-to-clean surfaces; use drip trays to prevent spills or drips from spreading

Another approach

Where adequate control of exposure cannot be achieved by other means, provide suitable personal protective equipment (PPE) in combination with other control measures. PPE tends to be less effective and reliable than other control options because:
• it only protects the wearer
• it has to be selected carefully
• it has to be put on, worn and taken off properly
• it has to be properly stored checked and maintained
• it may limit mobility or dexterity
• it can be delicate and relatively easily damaged
• it can sometimes fail to danger without warning
• PPE includes gloves, aprons and overalls; choose the quality and construction to provide the right level of protection without being over the top for the job, as this can discourage use
• Typically the hands and forearms are most likely to come into contact with hazardous materials, so selecting gloves that are right for the work is crucial
• Make sure that PPE is compatible with the wearer, the work and with other PPE to be worn
• Incorrectly selected or badly fitting PPE can increase the risk of exposure, as contamination can get through or around the PPE and become trapped against the skin

Adequate facilities for washing and good skin care

Skin care plays an important role in preventing skin disease. Employers should:
• ensure that employees maintain a standard of personal hygiene that is consistent with adequate control of exposure
• provide adequate washing facilities; this includes a supply of warm water, soft cotton or paper towels and moisturising creams
• tell employees about the importance of thorough drying of skin after washing, the use of moisturisers to replace the natural skin oils lost by washing and the action of certain substances on the skin

Health surveillance

Health surveillance such as skin checks will help to identify the early symptoms of dermatitis or other health effects caused by skin exposure.

The earlier the health effect is recognised the better the prognosis for the sufferer.

Health surveillance can show whether an adequate standard of control is being maintained.

Information, instruction and training

Human behaviour is critical in maintaining the effectiveness of control measures. Employers must therefore inform, instruct and train workers about the risks from skin exposure, and the steps they need to take to protect themselves. This includes instruction in the correct use of any PPE provided and in good skin care regimes. 

Author details:

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is the UK’s national independent watchdog for work-related health, safety and illness. It is an independent regulator and acts in the public interest to reduce work-related death and serious injury across Great Britain’s workplaces.

Visit: www.hse.gov.uk 


Published: 10th Sep 2011 in OSA Magazine


Health & Safety Executive

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Fax: 0845 408 9566

Textphone: 0845 408 9577

e-mail: hse.infoline@natbrit.com or write to

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Health & Safety Executive



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