Bad wrap or bad rap?
Latex gloves have been in use since the 1930s, protecting workers and the public from the spread of contamination and exposure to harmful chemicals.
Despite their popular use and longevity, these general-purpose work gloves have been under fire for some time, identified as a nasty allergen for many of the workers who wear them. In fact, eight to 12 percent of healthcare workers who wear latex gloves develop an allergy to latex. (Good alternatives to latex include nitrile gloves and vinyl gloves.)
But before dismissing latex gloves as a bad product, consider the benefits many workers enjoy by using latex gloves.
Pros: Comfortable, cheap and great barrier to bio fluids
Latex gloves provide an excellent barrier to biological fluids. In the aftermath of the AIDS crisis, OSHA enacted the Universal Precautions Standard (29 CFR 1910.1030) in 1992, requiring employers to provide gloves for employees exposed to blood-borne pathogens.
Today, latex gloves are worn by workers across numerous industries, including
- medical, dental and laboratories
- food service
- government workers - law enforcement, emergency response, sanitation.
Latex gloves are comfortable and allow excellent manual dexterity. According to OSHA, latex gloves offer "outstanding tensile strength, elasticity and temperature resistance."
Despite these features and widespread use, there are cases when latex gloves are not a good choice.
Cons: Allergic reactions to latex gloves are common
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), there are different types of allergic reactions to latex products:
- Irritant contact dermatitis - most common reaction
- Allergic contact dermatitis - due to chemicals used in harvesting latex. Symptoms of this more serious latex allergy include skin rashes; hives; flushing; itching; nasal, eye or sinus symptoms; asthma and shock (rarely).
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety attributes latex allergy to repeated exposure to the protein from the natural rubber in latex. It is believed that the powdery starch that is added inside latex gloves to make them less sticky can absorb the protein. Once sensitized to latex, exposure to any products containing latex can trigger a reaction.