Frequent contact with blood and bacteria, extreme fluctuations in temperature, sharp knives, and dangerous cutting machines…it’s hardly surprising that the food industry accounts for roughly 15.3 percent of all manufacturing injuries. At the same time, food regulations are getting more stringent every day. Personal protective equipment (PPE) therefore is more important than ever in the food sector. With the majority of food handling operations being manual, efficient hand protection is an excellent starting point.
Recent statistics from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (2010) show that the incidence rate for manufacturing injuries in the food industry lies considerably higher than in general manufacturing: 5.8 compared to 4.4, per 100 workers. Not only do these numbers give an insight into the often risky conditions on the floor, they also define a clear need for more adequate protection.
When considering the procurement of protective equipment, purchasers are often overwhelmed by a seemingly infinite amount of choices. This is especially true for hand protection and gloves, where terms like “gauge,” ”dexterity,” “grip,” “cut resistance,” and “cut protection” may cause confusion. Picking the wrong glove can be expensive—a nightmare for a cost-driven industry like food—and can have a negative impact on productivity. Keeping in mind a few key aspects will stand you in good stead.
A Unique Set of Circumstances
Before determining the necessary steps to assign the right glove to the right task, there is one important consideration to make: The food industry differs greatly from other sectors when it comes to hand protection. In most other industries, automation continues to increase while the need for human intervention diminishes. In contrast, many tasks in the food processing industry are still done by hand. As workers’ hands are in direct contact with cutting and slicing machinery, cut- and puncture-resistance is key but the complexity of the tasks demands dexterity and comfort. Additionally, the hands are exposed to animal blood, fats, and bacteria, which make efficient liquid protection an absolute priority. The rapidly changing legislation concerning food processing and contamination risks backs up that requirement. Last but not least, the carpal tunnel syndrome debate has lowered the proportion of repetitive work in food and other industries. As a result, one worker now has several tasks to attend to, each with their own safety hazards and equipment requirements.
Rethinking the Selection Process
Intensive market research has shown that the classic approach of selecting protection gear through risk categories—mechanical, chemical, and liquid protection—does not work for the food industry. It is rather the protection need—cut resistance, thermal resistance, puncture and abrasion resistance, and liquid resistance that determines which glove is the most suitable. Users need to consider the type of operation (e.g. meat processing, beverages, dairy products, cereal, and milling), the primary type of food handled, and the worker task (e.g. reception of live animals, sawing machines, slicing, cleaning). In this way, it makes far more sense for manufacturers as well as end-users to categorize the equipment by application segments that define the gloves’ purpose: Cut-resistant, thermal-resistant, liners, general-purpose, puncture- and abrasion-resistant, and liquid resistant gloves.
Despite their immediate link with food quality, cut injuries continue to be one of the most common risks in food processing. Prevention requires a thorough understanding of the influences that cause these injuries. Obvious risks are the handling of sharp objects like knives, blades, and cutting tools. Still, there are other contributing factors too, such as the weight of the object being handled, grip, and handling angle, and the fact that workers often have to stand close to each other, which heightens the risk of accidentally hurting one another. These cannot be tackled by equipment alone, but require an analysis of the working conditions, including machine guarding, setup, and training.