More on PPE – this time let’s talk about gloves.
I am an environmental chemist. My work involves exposure to toxic and/or corrosive chemicals. Prior to my current professional position, I worked at the University of Victoria, teaching first year students in their first university laboratory course. Both as a professional and academic, the very first thing I teach is how to correctly use personal protective equipment (PPE).
This post is about gloves.
Glove safety is a particular bugbear of mine. The reason for this is personal. During my graduate studies, a colleague had a nasty accident thanks to not following glove protocol. Because of that I spend a lot of time enforcing good glove protocol with my staff. I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned.
Gloves can be your friends, but you don’t need them for most tasks
Almost every health official on the planet has repeated the same refrain: good hand hygiene is an important way to protect ourselves from the Coronavirus. Virtually every public surface may be covered in virus; good hand hygiene will help protect you. As the Centers for Disease Control points out you need to perform hand hygiene (e.g., handwashing with non-antimicrobial soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub) after having contact with respiratory secretions and contaminated objects/materials.
But in some situations, good hand hygiene is not good enough. That’s when you should wear gloves. A good (intact) pair of nitrile or latex gloves provides an excellent barrier from Coronavirus. But gloves are not a panacea – and used incorrectly, gloves can hurt rather than help.
From what I have seen to date, most people are using gloves incorrectly. In so doing so, they’re putting themselves, their families, and people they encounter at increased risk. I want to emphasize some of the rules you should consider when wearing gloves.
Always assume the outside of your glove is contaminated
The most important thing to understand: always treat your gloves as if they are contaminated. Assume the outside of your glove is covered with the virus – meaning if you touch something with that glove, you have contaminated it with Coronavirus.
A few weeks ago, I was in line at the grocery store behind a couple wearing gloves. They had done all their shopping wearing these gloves (I noticed them earlier) and they were at the cashier.
They insisted on paying with cash,much to the dismay of the cashier. The gent proceeded to touch every single bill with his gloved hands. Before that, I watched him pull his wallet from his back pocket with his gloved hand. He then collected his wife’s purse, using the same gloved hand, and pulled out her wallet to get change.
He was oblivious to the fact that every object he touched would be exposed to whatever was on the outside of his gloves. His pocket, his wallet, his wife’s purse, her wallet – all now potentially exposed.
What really offended me was that by handling the cash with his gloves and giving it to the cashier, who was not wearing gloves, he put her at added risk.
Had he instead used one of the Lysol wipes handed out at the door, and not worn gloves, he could have protected himself, his family, and the cashier. That sort of bad citizenship frustrates me to no end. This brings me to my next rule:
Never touch with your glove anything you may touch without your glove
This rule is simply a follow-up on the first. If you wear gloves, don’t touch anything with the glove that you want to later touch without them.
In the office, I’m always all over my field staff about this. The classic example: pens.
My field technicians are constantly writing field notes and have pens everywhere. Where do many people store pens when their hands are full? Their mouths, of course.
I teach my lab technicians that if they have to touch a pen with a gloved hand, they should mark that pen and never touch it again without gloves. This leads to the obvious next rule:
Don’t wear gloves (or do work requiring gloves) in common areas, or in areas where others will be working without gloves.
If you decide to wear gloves for your protection, you need to establish “glove-only” and “glove-free” zones, and these areas should be clear.
If you don’t follow this rule, you put unwitting people at risk. We share spaces with others and part of sharing spaces with people is protecting them. This is simply good manners and good citizenship.
In a similar vein, never wear gloves in your vehicle that you wore out of your vehicle. One exception: wearing “clean” gloves to protect an area from unclean hands.
This is often the case for me. Coming home from the field, I sometimes can’t be sure I was able to get my hands clean before getting in my vehicle. In that case, I wear clean gloves in my car – to protect the car from my hands, not the other way around.
Once home, I turn on the water in my sink, then take off my gloves, and wash my hands immediately – because in this case, the INSIDE of the gloves represents the contaminated surface.
Replace gloves regularly and remove them using correct technique
Since we have to assume the outside of our gloves are contaminated, we should change them regularly and need to ensure they are removed correctly.
There is a correct technique to removing gloves, depicted in the graphic below. Not removing gloves correctly defeats the purpose of wearing them.
Photo credit Globus UK
Notice how the outside of the glove is only touched by glove, and the inside only touched by skin. This is incredibly important because, once again, you must assume the outside of your gloves are contaminated.
Wear the right glove for the task
Another important thing to remember is that nitrile/latex gloves are designed to protect you from exposure to germs and some chemicals. They are not designed for heavy use. If you plan on doing heavy work, wear appropriate gloves.
For our work, our field technicians are dealing with glass jars that can break and cause cuts, so they wear cut-resistant gloves underneath their nitrites. This allows them to get the protection both from cuts and from contamination. If you need to use multiple gloves to complete a task, then wear multiple layers of gloves.
Sometimes when jarring multiple soil samples, I will layer on 3 to 4 layers of nitriles. That way, I can pull off one layer and still have gloved hands to handle the next sample.
Gloves only work if you are paying attention
A critical thing to remember is that PPE only works for people who remain aware of the reason they are wearing PPE. Remember that lab accident I talked about from my youth? My colleague was working with organic solvents, wearing all the right PPE…when his eye got itchy.
He reached under his safety glasses with his gloved hand, and etched his cornea with the organic solvent contaminating his glove.
He had forgotten the most important rule: PPE is your last line of defence, not your first.
PPE is there to protect you because every other level of planning and procedures has failed. If you’re relying on PPE, you planned incorrectly. Figure out how to do the job without PPE, then wear PPE as a backup; not the other way around.
To conclude, if you avoid touching things you don’t need to; wash your hands regularly; practice social distancing; and avoid crowds, you will do more to reduce your risk to Coronavirus than just wearing gloves or a mask.
Because of my work, I have a box of nitrile gloves in my car. Throughout this epidemic I have put on a nitrile glove twice. Both times were to put gas in my car; I have a bad habit of spilling gas from the nozzle onto my hand.
As a safety professional, I trust my good planning and good habits to protect me, not unnecessary layers of PPE. Gloves will only protect you if you follow good glove protocols. If not, you will simply lull yourself into a false sense of security while putting yourself, your family, and the people you encounter at increased risk.
Blair King is an environmental scientist who works out of Langley and blogs at the website A Chemist in Langley on evidence-based environmental decision-making.
- Blair King wrote last week on when (and how) it’s appropriate to wear a mask, and when it’s safe not to.
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- Ada Slivinski: “Covid fees” are helping some businesses recoup higher expenses and lost revenue – but with customers also feeling the pinch, it’s a delicate balancing act.