If you want to get attention about hand safety, try showing a project crew what happens to a naked human hand when a knife slices through the palm, or a 4x4 comes crashing down on the bony back of the hand. Then do the same thing with a safety glove slipped over the hand and compare the damage. Of course, the hand shouldn’t be attached to a living human. To make a lasting impression, you’ll need a silicone version made with wooden bones and fake blood that can bleed out.

That’s what one safety consultant has done in live demonstrations for employees at a couple of big energy companies. “Most safety training is so boring,” notes Matthew R. Hallowell, executive director of Boulder, Colo.-based Safety Function LLC, which conducted the demonstrations along with colleagues from his consulting company and the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he is an endowed professor of construction engineering.

A new generation of task-specific safety gloves has the potential to be a game changer in construction personal protective equipment--if employers buy them and workers put them on.

The slicing and smashing safety demonstrations, a recent safety journal study has shown, imprinted deeply enough on the minds of the energy company workers to make a lasting change in their behavior.

That’s fortunate, because a new generation of task-specific safety gloves has the potential to be a game changer in construction personal protective equipment—if employers buy them and workers put them on. The safety demonstrations conducted by Hallowell and his colleagues are designed to sell the idea to workers.

The differences between a protected hand and an unprotected one can be dramatic, especially when it comes to cut protection, where some of the greatest advances have been made. A bumper crop of gloves with level 3 and 4 protection against cuts—as rated by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)—promises to cut down on everything from scrapes to deep lacerations. Results are already showing up. One renovation contractor that puts more than 100 employees into the field each day had up until three years ago been averaging 10 hand laceration injuries a year. In the two years after implementing a 100% level-3 cut-protection glove policy, only one worker has sustained a single laceration.

“Even inexpensive gloves will help in cuts,” says the company’s safety manager, who preferred not to be identified. “I have not found any brand of glove better than others. As long as they have the cut three (or better) rating, I believe you can expect much better hand protection for very little cost.”

A recently enacted set of industry standards is now helping to unleash a second major wave of glove innovation, with the development of materials and designs that can protect workers’ hands from heavy hits or blows.

Meanwhile, glove manufacturers say they have also made strides in designing gloves with lighter materials and greater flexibility, an imperative because many construction workers still eschew hand protection out of concern that it limits their dexterity.

“Certainly gloves have gotten more advanced—they are lighter and they allow for more manual dexterity than they did 30 years ago,” says Michael Joel, senior safety manager at Suffolk, the Boston-based construction manager. “Thirty years ago, there were two different gloves, now there are 30 different ones. … You couldn’t use an iPhone with the leather glove they gave you 30 years ago.”

There were nearly 124,000 hand injuries across all industries in 2018, according to the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Construction had the second most injuries, behind manufacturing.

To gain a sense of how the injuries arise, ENR reviewed all the hand accidents reported by employers on New York City building construction projects last year. They ran the gamut. Some were the result of falls. Others were direct injuries in which current reached electricians’ hands, burning them. In two accidents, workers let a window slip from their grip, cutting hands. In two other accidents, workers lost control of circular saws, landing them at urgent care or hospital emergency rooms. In another accident, a worker’s hand got squeezed in a pinch point between a pallet jack and the window frame through which it was being lifted. In another, the pinch point between metal angles being unloaded from a flatbed truck closed together on a worker’s hand, inflicting cuts.

Another accident raises the question of whether 100% glove use is wise for every task: During work on a roof parapet, a worker was attempting to guide a drill bit by placing his gloved hand on the bit. The glove snagged in the bit’s rotation, which caused a sudden reflex to pull the fingers back. That, thankfully, caused some pain and a bruise but little else.

Nationally, the total cost of such accidents to contractors and other employers ranges from several hundred dollars to $26,000 for a single injury, according to one survey. Other, more severely disabling accidents, such as crushed fingers that require amputation, can be much higher. In a case decided last year in New York City, where the labor law favors plaintiffs, a jury awarded a construction worker $3.4 million in damages from a developer and contractor.

Both industry standards and the development of more effective materials promise better gloves than even the improved versions on the market now. ANSI helped lead the way in 2016, dramatically expanding the system for grading the cut protection offered by gloves produced by various manufacturers. Under ANSI/ISEA 105-2016, the cut-resistance rating system expanded to a new 0-9 scale from its previous six cut levels, 0-5. The old scale topped out at 3,500 grams when measuring the energy of a cutting material against the glove. The new scale raised that to 6,000 grams.

Levels 1 through 3 provide protection against scrapes, while the next step up, levels 4-6, shields hands from more serious injuries that would require stitches. Levels 7-9 offer the most protection, though there are some hazards, such as a motorized blade, that even the best designed glove can’t thwart, notes Donald F. Groce, chemical and disposable product manager at Global Glove & Safety Manufacturing, which makes personal protective equipment.

The International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) , which launched a major safety push last year that used the hashtag #SafeHands, was a key player in hammering out the new and expanded cut ratings. Agreement on a common way to test and measure cut-resistance helped. During that work, ANSI and ISEA agreed to use the same cut-rating device, the TDM-100 or Tomodynamometer. That made ratings more meaningful.

Material Improvements

Material improvements have helped a lot, too. Glove makers have been able to use fiber engineering to weave in new and stronger materials that boost the cut rating of their products. Along with Kevlar, a strong, synthetic fiber that has been around for decades, glove companies are also weaving in fiberglass, stainless steel and silicon to boost the cut ratings of their products.

The combination of design/engineering and chemical treatments in some gloves has also increased the likelihood that a blade, instead of catching on the material and slicing into it, will instead glance off.

“Fiber engineering” created “cut-resistant materials that were much more protective than before,” Groce wrote in a recent safety trade publication.

ANSI and ISEA teamed up again in 2019, rolling out a new glove safety measurement system for impact, ANSI/ISEA 138-2019, or American National Standard for Performance and Classification for Impact Resistant Hand Protection. The new system establishes three levels for rating the ability of gloves to protect the hands of workers from blows with varying degrees of force.

The test itself under the new ANSI/ISEA standard involves dropping an anvil on a glove, with the back separated from the rest so that its ability to absorb the impact can be measured. The force is measured in kilonewtons (kN). Lower impact levels signal the glove is doing a better job at absorbing the blow, while higher levels indicate the opposite.

For many trades, gloves should be an essential part of a worker’s safety kit.

These include sheetmetal workers and ironworkers, who handle sharp steel edges, laborers who handle different materials, welders, drywall installers, who use knives, and roofers, says Joel, the Suffolk safety manager. Electricians should wear them as well when performing “shock rated” work.

Construction workers often fail to use protective gloves because they feel the added layer and bulk makes it harder to do certain tasks. “Many workers resist wearing gloves because they feel they lose a sense of manual dexterity or tactile sensation,” Joel says. Assembling small nuts and bolts, or using an iPhone, are examples of tasks that are perceived as harder to carry out with gloves. Another problem, others have noted, is workers and employers who assume that one glove will fit all tasks.

Meanwhile, live demonstrations may be a good way to drive home the point to workers already accustomed to numerous bland safety briefings that blend in with one another. One pipeline company found that the combination of level-5 cut protection, together with live demonstrations, had eliminated most hand injuries over millions of hours of work on two major projects.

Hallowell says that his company’s live demonstrations are meant to tap into emotions that a simple PowerPoint is unlikely to reach. “We show how easily the hand can be injured,” he says of his demonstrations, “and how the right gloves really make a difference.” 

With reporting from Scott Van Voorhis