Properly fitting gloves that are appropriate for the task will help prevent hand injury as well as protect the hands from cold temperatures.
Photos by Sally Colby.

According to Rob Stuthridge of the National AgrAbility Project at Purdue University, hand protection includes gloves, mittens, tapes, hand warmers, barrier creams, skin care creams, and the conscious behaviors that people can adopt with the aim of reducing risk of injury to their hands.

“The hands are the most likely body part to be injured from all causes, accounting for 22 percent of work-related nonfatal injuries to adults,” said Stuthridge. “Even superficial injuries to the hands can have serious outcomes. Damage to the skin can increase the chance of chemical absorption, infections and allergic reactions. Lacerations and abrasions reduce the skin’s barrier to pathogens and allergens.”

Multiple factors often put workers at higher risk for injury. For example, an orchard worker might be at higher risk when wearing heavy gloves in low temperatures while handling large, thick branches.

To be the most effective against injury, gloves should always be appropriate for the task. Gloves that are too large or that have worn, ragged spots can more easily become entangled in machinery or PTO shafts. When gloves are worn for physical protection, there’s often a trade-off with dexterity, which can present additional risk for injury.

For orchard tasks that are difficult to perform with gloves, workers should take extra care to prevent hand injuries.

For the orchard worker, gloves are an important part of physical protection against cold. “Fingers are susceptible to tissue damage, including frostbite, due to their distance from core heat sources in the body,” Stuthridge explained. “Significant body heat can be lost through the hands. Disabled or older workers are at higher risk for tissue injury. Some medications, including certain beta blockers [usually used to treat high blood pressure] can make them more susceptible to frostbite.” Workers with certain medical conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes and hypothyroidism, are more susceptible to hypothermia and should consult their physician to determine if their medical condition creates higher risk.

Fingerless mittens may be a solution to the dexterity problem, as they free up the fingers. However, if workers choose to wear fingerless mittens, they must consider the potential risk of handling cold metal with bare fingers.

Windchill charts provided by the National Weather Service are useful for determining allowable exposure time in relation to when frostbite can occur. “Frostbite can occur within 30 minutes, even if temperatures are above freezing,” said Stuthridge. “Hand protection should be specified to cope with the worst-case scenario for a given occupational setting. The risk of windchill should be part of the calculation that is used to select appropriate hand protection, including not exceeding safe exposure times for ungloved hands.”

Good thermal hand wear can reduce the worker’s dexterity and tactile sensitivity, which in turn presents a new problem: it can potentially increase the amount of muscular effort required to grip, which may result in muscle strain or tendon tearing. For winter work such as pruning and orchard maintenance, workers should select gloves that are both water and wind-resistant, preferably with slip-resistant palms and/or finger pads. Gloves should be no thicker than necessary for conditions. Several thin layers may be appropriate to adapt hand wear to the task. Hand warmers kept in the pocket or heated gloves are other options.

Gloves should afford protection from friction or abrasion injuries that are common in orchard work. Workers should be aware of the added friction that comes with repeated use of pruning equipment.

A complex medical problem known as hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) can affect the circulatory system, nerves, joints and muscles, and can lead to permanent tissue damage. Early signs include numbness and tingling in the fingers and a reduced sense of temperature. These factors cause additional risk to the operator, who may not be able to accurately perform a task with full coordination. Workers who perform tasks with vibrating equipment in cold weather are at increased risk.

Although anti-vibration gloves may help reduce transmitted vibration, other factors such as the worker’s increased force applied to the handle of the equipment may increase the transmission of vibration to the palm. Ideally, vibration should be absorbed mechanically, rather than by the operator’s hands and arms.

“Grip force, hand temperature and hand-arm postures are risk factors for HAVS,” said Stuthridge. “Gloves may improve grip, depending on the design and working conditions. The operator should adopt a relaxed grip as much as possible.”

Lacerations to the hands are second only to back injuries as a cause of lost work time. Stuthridge says that whenever possible, hazards should be engineered out of the workplace, but when this cannot be achieved, gloves and/or anti-cut tape can help protect hands. However, not all materials afford equal protection against cuts, and testing standards for gloves don’t provide information on serrated edges, saw blades or cutting tools.

When selecting gloves for agricultural tasks, be aware that not all gloves are the same when it comes to protection from chemicals, hand injury or cold exposure.

Mechanical injury through bruising or pinching as a result of forceful trauma is another risk to hands. Gloves can help by providing cushioning between the hand and the object so deep tissue damage is limited.

“Avoid excess thickness in favor of thinner material that protects the knuckles and wrist joints,” said Stuthridge. “Matching hand protection to the user requires an understanding of the physical fit and work behavior and how the hands are used in the task. Does it involve grasping objects, torque, pushing or pulling?”

While gloves that stretch to fit are likely to be the most comfortable, materials in such gloves may be unsuitable for the task. Gloves that provide the most impervious barrier (such as for handling chemicals) are also the least likely to fit properly. Poor fit results in sloppiness when gripping because more exertion is required to grip an object securely. Poor fit also causes a restricted range of motion, especially when fingers need to be spread to complete a task. While gloves constructed with shaped knuckles seem like a good concept, they often cause problems for the user.

Gloves shouldn’t be more protective than necessary for the task, so consider the task and environmental conditions when selecting appropriate gloves for cold-weather orchard work.

The author is a frequent contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in south-central Pennsylvania. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.