Personal protective equipment, or PPE, is what you need when everything else has gone wrong. You don’t need a helmet until your head has been impacted by an outside force, usually a branch stub. You don’t need cut-resistant leg protection until the saw kicks back into your leg. We wear PPE to keep the consequences of unsafe acts from becoming fatal or serious, nonfatal injuries.
We also wear PPE to protect us from the effect of chronic exposure to hazard sources, such as loud sounds that can result in gradual loss of hearing. We wear eye protection to reduce eye injuries from scrapes and punctures. This same PPE also can protect eyes from annoying irritants, such as sawdust that can get beneath the eyelids, causing a burning sensation until tears remove them.
Helmet, hearing protection, eye protection and, when operating a chain saw on the ground, cut-resistant leg protection, are all requirements for tree workers during arboricultural operations. Appropriate footwear for the hazards of the workplace – often boots that have a non-slip sole, are cut resistant and provide ankle support – also are necessary but are something workers must provide themselves.
There is other PPE that, while not specifically addressed in our Z133 standards under General Safety, 3.3 Personal Protective Equipment, can provide protection from injuries, and one of these is gloves. Some workers like gloves and wear them most of the time, while others dislike the disconnect from the feel of the climbing line or saw handle. It is a matter of personal preference, but there are excellent gloves on the market with just enough tack from a coating – Post-it-note consistency – to improve grip on ropes.
Gloves can improve our ability to hold onto a surface, but they also can provide protection from many different injuries. One common burn to tree workers is not a true burn, neither thermal nor electric, but a friction burn. These are caused by abrasion that scrapes or removes the skin. These burns typically occur when a line runs through the hands too quickly. Anyone who has experienced a rope running too quickly though gripped hands knows the pain of a rope burn.
Abrasion burns – though painful – usually are not serious injuries and can be treated with a disinfecting agent, a cream and dressing. Better to avoid the burn in the first place by having a layer of protection – the glove surface – between you and the rope. Many gloves have reinforced palms to protect against rope abrasion.
Tree workers do experience thermal burns, and these come from touching a hot surface. There are many hot surfaces on a gas-powered chain saw. A good pair of gloves can provide enough insulation to protect from these thermal burns. What our gloves generally do not provide protection against are electric burns. We do not wear the insulting rubber gloves specifically designed for electrical line workers for a reason; we are not line workers.
Gloves provide protection from the small nicks and scrapes that create minor lacerations. Hand saws are a common source of these nicks. Our hand saws are sharper than many realize, and it does not take much contact with the blade to make a thin laceration on the arm or hand.
Cut resistance is a key requirement for arborist gloves, and many glove manufacturers note the cut resistance of their gloves. Cut resistance is measured by how a glove resists a sharp edge. Cut resistance is a function of a glove’s material composition and thickness. This is something that can be measured, and some suppliers identify this as a number or, more commonly, the letter “A” followed by a number. The scale is 1 to 9, with 1 being the least resistant to cuts and 9 the most. A1 is very light and flexible, but best suited for protection from abrasion. At the opposite end is A9, which provides the maximum protection from cuts but is stiff and can result in hand fatigue. Many gloves I have seen offered to arborists are rated between A4 and A6, and are designed to provide cut resistance but also flexibility and comfort.
Punctures are another hazard source to tree workers, and gloves can provide protection from these. Honeylocust thorns, for example, can easily puncture the skin, and any puncture is an avenue for pathogens. Tree workers have experienced severe infections from being punctured by thorns.
Puncture resistance also is measurable. The puncture resistance ranges from 1, which requires only 10 newtons of force to penetrate, to 5, requiring 150 newtons of force to puncture. The puncture testing was not designed for the tree-work environment, and no glove is puncture proof. There are gloves on the market that have a 5 rating that are still flexible and comfortable to wear.
Another benefit of wearing gloves for chain-saw operations is reducing vibration. While our gas-powered chain saws have made great strides in reducing vibration, a little more protection does not hurt. There are tree-worker gloves available that have memory foam or other material to absorb and dampen the vibration energy.
Per ANSI Z133-2017, section 8.11.1, gloves are required PPE for the operation of high-pressure air-excavation equipment.
Plants can cause pain from allergic reaction. The most frequent source is poison ivy, along with poison sumac and poison oak. Some people develop sensitivity after only a few exposures, others can take decades. The effect is cumulative – the more exposure, the greater the likelihood of developing sensitivity. Gloves can help reduce that exposure, but remember, the glove surface will be contaminated and must be cleaned. Also, some glove materials and construction can absorb the urushiol oils and are very difficult to clean.
Pesticide applications are an operation where gloves are a required PPE identified on the chemical label. The glove should be unlined and elbow length. This extra length protects the applicator’s wrists and prevent pesticides from running down the sleeves into the gloves. While the gloves must be resistant to chemicals, the specific glove requirements are listed on the pesticide label. Barrier laminates provide the highest protection for most pesticides and are frequently found on the PPE list in the labels. Butyl rubber, with a thickness greater than 14 mm, is another material with high chemical resistance for many pesticides.
The contaminant our gloves are not designed to protect from, nor should they be, is blood-borne pathogens. Any time a tree worker assists a co-worker with treating a laceration or other injury that breaks the skin, he or she must be wearing disposable – one-use-only – gloves designed for this purpose. Nitrile is the most common material for these gloves. Latex, while providing a better feel, can cause an allergic reaction for some people. Vinyl gloves may have micropores, so nitrile is the better choice, as it provides superior protection.
Finally, gloves should provide protection, not be an agent for an injury. Loose-fitting gloves can be a catch hazard and have dragged workers’ hands into the feed rollers of a chipper. They also can catch on any jagged surface and cause the wearer to loss balance. The gauntlet gloves with the larger opening can easily snag on branches.
The ideal glove is light and thin enough not to reduce our sense of touch on an object, thick enough to provide insulation from thermal and abrasion burns and durable enough to protect from minor scrapes and punctures. Protection from cold temperatures is also a consideration. There are gloves on the market that meet these criteria in varying degrees; choose the one best suited to your work or, even better, have different pairs and choose the best one for the task at hand.
A final note
The fundamental purpose of PPE is to reduce the consequences of errors. While gloves are not specifically addressed as essential PPE, though they are identified as such under 8.11.1 High-Pressure Air-Excavation Equipment, they are still necessary for other arboricultural operations. The Z, within Section 3 General Safety Requirement, 3.3 Personal Protective Equipment 3.3.7, does have a statement that clothing and footwear appropriate to known work-site hazards shall be approved by the employer and worn by the employee. Anyone who has held a tag line, pruned a branch with a hand saw or operated a chain saw and made an error that resulted in rope burn or a laceration can probably say that a good pair of gloves is appropriate PPE.
John Ball, Ph.D., BCMA, CTSP, A-NREMT (Advanced – National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians), is professor of forestry at South Dakota State University.