By Jeffrey Stull
Of all the clothing items worn by firefighters for structural firefighting, perhaps the most misunderstood are gloves. Among garments, footwear and helmets, they are considered the commodity or a throwaway item of the protective ensemble and are often given little consideration in their purchase.
But hand protection during firefighting is of paramount importance. Burns and other injuries to the hand, though lessened over the years, still represent a significant proportion of all fireground injuries. Where there are complaints about the different elements of the protective ensemble, often gloves top the list. Complaints include them being too bulky or too restrictive on hand movements.
In some cases, departments even forego using products certified to the prevailing NFPA standard, relying on non-compliant gloves that are thinner and seemingly more comfortable to use. There are other instances where gloves have been represented as being compliant with the applicable NFPA 1971 standard and either the claims are not justified or their conformity is questionable. Certainly, the fire service industry can benefit from a better understanding for the selection and use of structural firefighting gloves.
Here are the top five considerations when buying firefighter gloves.
1. Material Selection
All layers must work together to provide protection to the hands. However, in the selection of these layers there are tradeoffs that dictate the use of certain materials to limit the reduction of firefighter dexterity, grip, and tactility.
Shell materials tend to be leather, including cowhide, elk, pigskin, goat and other specialty leathers. These leathers have different characteristics in terms of their durability as well as their suppleness. The thickness of the leather is often dictated by the various performance requirements that are governed by the criteria in NFPA 1971 Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural and Proximity Fire Fighting.
While thinner leathers may provide better hand mobility, the leather probably will not be rugged enough for fireground use, or simply not provide sufficient insulation. Typically, all leathers are specially tanned for flame resistance. Unfortunately, this has the net effect of stiffening the leather.
Textile shells, principally Kevlar, are being used more and more, but require additional reinforcements to permit needed puncture resistance.
Gloves meeting NFPA 1971 require a continuous barrier throughout the construction of the glove to at least 2 inches past the wrist crease, where the hand joins the arm. The barrier keeps the interior of the gloves dry, but moreover provides integrity of the gloves from penetration by blood, many chemicals and other harmful liquids.
The barrier layer must remain intact during repeated use, and not separate from the glove interior. The most common barrier materials used in gloves are a form of Teflon known as Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) or polyurethane. Any material and its seams that are used as glove barriers must not degrade from high heat exposures.
This requirement limits the types of materials that can be used in glove construction. Typically barrier materials don't flex or stretch as much as other materials used in glove design, so barrier layers are often designed as permanent inserts and have to be slightly oversized to permit hand insertion and adequate flexing. This oversizing of the insert can result in glove bulkiness.
For hand comfort, gloves are provided with a lining. The lining has the primary function of providing the necessary insulation for the gloves. Together with the other layers, it helps to provide overall insulation to the hand from radiant, convective or conductive heat exposures.
2. Thickness of lining
Generally, the overall thickness of the lining is established by the various insulation requirements in NFPA 1971. However, thicker linings mean more glove bulk and reduced dexterity. When a suitable shell material is used, it can be possible to combine the moisture barrier and thermal lining into a single layer. Two-layer gloves may provide improved hand function and still provide adequate insulation.
For softness, stretch and ease of providing a three-dimensional shape, glove linings are constructed of knit materials. The most common of these are a flame-resistant modacrylic material. However, some other linings are used that include Kevlar/Nomex knit materials. Easily melting materials such as polyesters and nylons, while seemingly comfortable, are not appropriate as linings since these materials lack sufficient thermal stability and pose a melting/sticking hazard to the hand during emergency fireground conditions. This is the same reason why similar materials are not used in turnout garments.
3. Wristlet or gauntlet
Gloves may either have a knit wristlet or gauntlet. Wristlets, generally made of Nomex, are close fitting to the wrist but some firefighters prefer gauntlets as wristlets can already be part of their turnout coat sleeves. For the most part, gauntlets are an extension of the three-layer glove material composite, but must be designed to be close fitting to the wrists.
Other materials are often used in glove construction. Reinforcements may be applied on the shell or as internal layers. In some cases, palm areas are reinforced — or a different shell material is used — to provide additional physical protection to the hands. Internal reinforcements in the form of additional layers may be incorporated to provide increased insulation in gloves areas, such as the back where higher heat exposures are expected.
4. Design considerations
As great an impact as the selection of materials might be for glove function, glove design cannot be overlooked. There are several different ways that gloves can be constructed that relate to the way the fingers and thumb are set in the glove pattern. Seam location is critical in affecting hand function because inappropriately placed seams can cause poor fit and hand function.
A classic problem in the design of gloves is the development of a means to retain the liner inside the shell. Typically, tabs or adhesive is applied at the finger tips. While this is an effective way to keep the lining in at each finger, it also creates bulk at the end of the finger tips, reducing tactility — the ability to feel shapes through the glove material by touch. Poor tactility can be a problem when firefighters must use radios and certain tools that require a certain sense of touch for proper operation.
Many gloves in the marketplace are essentially two-dimensional in their designs. This type of design can limit the functionality and fit of gloves as seams are created down the length of the fingers for joining the back and palm sides. Three-dimensional gloves, where side materials are used in finger construction, provide better fit and function, though are harder for glove manufacturers to make. Nevertheless, if the patterning of gloves results in a three-dimensional hand shape to begin with, then it makes sense that the glove will better conform to and move with the hand.
A key issue for both protection and comfort is the sizing. Gloves must fit correctly to provide proper levels of insulation as the trapped air inside the glove is a good insulator as well as conforming to the hand to allow good hand function. For example, when the bulk in glove fingers spreads the fingers apart, gripping ability is diminished.
Simple sizing schemes do not generally work to provide a full range of fit for firefighter populations. Manufacturers usually recommend firefighters assess their hand size by measuring wrist circumference and hand length, yet these two measures alone may not accommodate an adequate fit for some firefighters. As with footwear, it is preferred that gloves be offered in as many sizes as is practically possible. Some companies offer "cadet" sizing, which is a set of sizes with shorter fingers.
All gloves used by firefighters should conform to NFPA 1971. This standard sets the minimum requirements for gloves in terms of several important design and performance properties that define the lowest acceptable level of protection.
Even so, not all gloves meeting NFPA 1971 will be acceptable. It is important to know what materials the gloves are constructed of, the specific design features of gloves that will affect hand function and protection, and the available sizing of gloves to fit all members of the department.
Gloves are an essential part of the overall protective ensemble and must work with the selected coat to provide a good interface for overall firefighter thermal and liquid protection.
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Jeffrey O. Stull is a FireRescue1 columnist and president of International Personnel Protection, Inc., which provides expertise on the design, evaluation, selection and use of personnel protective clothing, equipment and related products to end users and manufacturers. They are considered amongst the leading experts in the field of personal protective equipment.