Many harmful chemicals in construction can get on your skin and cause damage. They can cause skin rashes (dermatitis) and allergic reactions (skin sensitization). Some are easily absorbed through the skin to poison your whole body.
Gloves can help protect you but wearing gloves is not so simple. Here's what to consider if you plan to wear gloves on the job:
Which gloves should you wear? To protect against chemicals, several types of gloves are available. These include neoprene, nitrile, poly-vinyl alcohol and butyl rubber. The protection they afford against chemicals can be very different. For example, cellosolve (a glycol ether solvent) will go through a poly vinyl alcohol glove in about half a minute, whereas a butyl rubber glove will protect against cellosolve for 21 hours. These differences are known as “breakthrough time. First, check what chemical you are using; then, check the Safety Data Sheet for glove recommendations and the glove manufacturer’s information for the gloves you plan to wear. See if the gloves are recommended for use against that chemical and what the breakthrough time is.
Make sure you get gloves that fit you and fit the task. Gloves come in all sizes and shapes. You may need gloves that have longer sleeves or are sturdier, depending on the task. Gloves that are too small or too large could allow chemicals to get in the sleeve or make the task harder. People often will not use gloves effectively if they interfere with job performance.
Should gloves be reused? Can they be decontaminated? Some gloves are designed to be thrown out after each use. Decontaminating gloves is not easy. If chemicals have gotten inside or penetrated a glove, it should be discarded.
Donning and doffing gloves, as with respirators, should follow required procedures. Taking off a contaminated glove needs to be done carefully to make sure it does not contaminate your skin.
Tools you have used and surfaces you have touched need to be cleaned and decontaminated before you contact them again without your gloves on.
If gloves are cleaned and will be reused, how will they be stored? They need to be stored in clean sealed containers to prevent them from becoming contaminated.
Gloves need to be inspected before every use. Look for discoloration, holes and tears. Inflate gloves to look for leaks. Discard any damaged gloves; do not try to repair them. Gloves should also be replaced immediately if they are damaged during use or if they have been used past the breakthrough time for the chemical being handled.
Anyone using gloves to protect against chemicals should be properly trained on how to use them as well as on the hazards of the chemicals against which the gloves are intended to protect.
Gloves can help protect you from exposures to hazardous chemicals but not if they are improperly used. It is not as simple as “if the glove fits, wear it.” You have to get the right glove for each potential exposure and wear it properly. If you do, you will win, hands down.
[Scott Schneider is the Fund's Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]