Gloves in the laboratory: To wear or not to wear?

George Washington University teaching assistant Anice Mathew instructs chemistry students in the use of an extraction funnel before they attempt to extract chlorophyll from spinach.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography (From “Personal Protection: Whither Lab Coats? C&EN June 28, 2010, page 18)

Andrea Sella, a chemistry professor at University College London, has this to say about reusable glove use in the laboratory:

The consequences of using reusables is substantial. First of all, they are moderately comfortable so people wear them continuously – this leads to students wandering all over the place while wearing them – out students use them on the lab computers and spectrometers, the scales and so on, contaminating pretty well everything. Yup, it’s bad practice and that’s what we tell them. But it still happens. Secondly because they are comfortable they lead to some rather thoughtless behaviour – it’s common to see students put a gloved finger onto a hotplate to check to see if it’s hot. A few times they melt the rubber onto the tip of their finger. It doesn’t seem very bright, but more worryingly, it’s probably an indication symptom of risk compensation, the tendency of an individual to alter their behaviour when they feel safer, much as if you play football you’ll tackle that little bit more aggressively if you’re wearing shin pads than if you’re not. …

But there is another dimension to this: waste disposal. By using disposable gloves we end up having to send a quarter of a million gloves a year to be incinerated each eyar. These have been used once, and a careful student shouldn’t really have got anything onto the gloves anyway, so they are probably pretty clean. Isn’t it incredibly wasteful? For the sake of an unknown and possibly questionable increase in personal safety we end up spending tens of thousands of pounds for items that could be reused. And then have to pay for someone to take all this stuff away.

He proposes at the end to have students use reusable gloves. Seems reasonable. But in further discussions with his colleagues, out came this:

One of the comments that came out of these discussions was the number of incidents we’ve had over the past few years involving students transferring chemicals from their gloves to their face, neck, and elsewhere. In fact, if you stand and watch students in the lab – as I had occasion to this week – you see them contantly adjusting their safety specs and scratching their neck, nose, ears at regular intervals. All wearing gloves, of course. And because they are wearing the gloves, they are blissfully unaware that there might be anything on the outside of the glove. …

By providing gloves we are actually lulling our students into a false sense of security. They get stuff on their gloves and even if they’re aware of it, they just assume that because they have gloves on “it’s OK”. Risk compensation works in mysterious ways. …

Now I’m not saying that one shouldn’t wear gloves under any circumstance. Far from it. Clearly there are issues of scale and of context. But what I am saying is that for the vast majority of procedures like the ones we conduct in our teaching labs, gloves may look smart but they have precisely the opposite effect to what we intend.

It’s wrong, it’s wasteful, and it’s expensive. And we have plenty of, for the most part, fairly minor incidents to deal with that probably would not happen if our students didn’t wear them.

So the plan is to go even further and actively discourage students from wearing gloves as a matter of routine in our labs. Why? Because, completely contrary to “common sense”, we believe they’ll be safer and actually work better in the lab.

I’ve written before about schools’ decisions not to have students in teaching labs wear gloves or lab coats. But I know that some still believe that minimum lab attire, no matter what, should be goggles, lab coat, and gloves. Also, you should wear personal protective equipment to account for everything going on in the lab: You may never spill something, but what about your labmates?

I’m curious to hear what Safety Zone readers think: Is there a minimum set of PPE that should be worn for teaching labs (perhaps accompanied by a contamination demo, like Seattle University does with fluorescent powder), or is this something to be considered on a lab-by-lab basis? And what about for research labs?

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. Goggles (or at least glasses) I understand. Between broken glass and the fact that even relatively benign substances can be irritating to the eye, I get it. But opting for lab coats and NOT gloves (as in the photo) seems odd to me. I think “I better not get this on my clothes” ought to follow “I better not get this on my bare skin” in general, whether the hazard is irritant, staining, or whatever. That being said, in most gen chem teaching labs, most experiments use water, non-toxic salts, acetone, maybe some EtOH in a distillation experiment. The most troublesome solvent/reagent in a gen chem lab? Acetic anhydride if they still do aspirin synthesis, I guess? But anymore, I get the impression that gen chem teaching labs are set up such that the students would have to be pretty imaginitive to cause themselves harm. Beyond gen chem, though, I think that’s a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish.

  2. Using PPE wisely is not something students are born with. And to me it is integral that teaching labs do not only demonstrate methods but also get students accustomed to sensible PPE usage – where should they learn it otherwise? Of course, it is easier just to remove the gloves completely than first teach students about how to use them sensibly and then police their behaviour until it has become second nature, but would that not defy the reason of a teaching lab?

    When they removed the disposable gloves from our organics teaching lab, they were honest about the fact that it was for monetary reasons, and so we went and bought our own.

  3. Students should be taught that they must wear goggles/glasses and lab coats at all times when in the lab. If it is not enforced they will not do it and they will never learn how to protect themselves. It should become habit for them to put PPE on when entering a lab, and to keep it on. This is how it is in industry and there are good reasons for this. There is no such thing as a danger-free lab. It is always possible that somebody else does something that does you harm, or even that something stored improperly suddenly explodes (and yes, events like these have certainly been recorded). Disposable gloves are also always used in industry. They should be changed when they become too dirty. However, in teaching labs, there are some labs in Gen Chem. when they may not really need gloves. When they should wear them, I tell the class to do so. And students also must be made aware of the need to thoroughly wash their hands with soap and water after leaving, whether they wore gloves or not. In any research lab gloves should be mandatory, because everything in that lab must be considered potentially contaminated. Disposable gloves are simply the cost of doing business.

    How many more students and instructors have to get hurt or killed before academia figures all this out?

  4. Time to chime in:

    First, gloves like ANY OTHER PPE must have an accompanying written risk assessment for their proper use. There is no “one glove protects against all” glove. Additionally, whenever glove are used in a laboratory setting, one must also weigh that against the loss of dexterity that accompanies glove use. It is unwise to just leave boxes of gloves out for general use without providing a context for their use. After all, Karen Wetterhahn thought that standard latex gloves were the right thing and she ended up dead of mercury poisoning from a cutaneous exposure of dimethylmecury.

    Second, and I’ve said this before, chemists are not entitled to a “zero-exposure” workplace. They are, however, entitled to a “zero-overexposure” workplace. While “exposure” usually means “inhalation” it can mean skin exposure as well.

    Choosing the “right” glove might not be as simple as one might think. Glove compatibility charts are nominally designed for industrial exposures and multi-hour use, but what if you’re not trying to protect for multi-hour exposures? Here’s an example:

    N-Dex style nitrile gloves are those blue, fairly thin (6-8 mil) gloves that fit well and provide a very high level of dexterity. However, glove charts will categorically say “Not Recommended” for use with nitric acid (nitrile gloves will dissolve in concentrated nitric acid) – and then the chart will slide you to butyl or silver shield for protection. But everyone who has ever worn butyl or butyl+silver shield for protection know that dexterity approaches zero and they’re generally useless for lab work.

    However, N-Dex style nitrile gloves are excellent for INCIDENTAL SPLASH PROTECTION against nitric acid in a laboratory setting: They discolor on exposure to nitric acid and nitric acid vapor, warning the user to change them out, giving the user plenty of time to get them off before a skin exposure occurs.

    The lesson here is – look at all the data including the process and protect based on risk.

    I am generally opposed to having gloves available in undergraduate teaching laboratories. First – a written risk assessment is usually never performed. Second – just what are undergraduates using that requires a glove? Incidental skin exposure of concentrated mineral acids and bases or solvents are not life threatening. Does requiring glove use inadvertently teach chemophobia even among the chemistry majors? Next – gloves take away dexterity (even the N-Dex style gloves) and this has to be part of the whole evaluation. If the student is doing a lot of intricate manipulations, do you want to limit dexterity and perhaps introduce a hazard to the process?

    Gloves and glove use definitely has a place in the chemical laboratory – industrial or academic. However, a solid risk analysis that evaluates the process, hazard and consequences of a plausible upset is certainly necessary to get the right answer.