Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2004   by Allan Janssen

Labor of glove

What do automotive technicians and brain surgeons have in common? Both wear gloves when they work.

Well, all right, may be gloves aren’t quite as accepted in the automotive repair bay as they are in the hospital operating room. But if the automotive-related sales of nitrile, vinyl, and latex gloves is any indication, more and more techs are choosing to protect their hands when they get under a vehicle.

Thirty years ago, mechanics took pride in their grease-stained hands. They were a sign of productivity. The noble mark of their profession.

Of course, back then gloves were thicker, less pliable, made of stiff leather or cotton. Sure, they were great at keeping hands warm on a cold winter day or protecting them against sharp edges, but they did nothing for dexterity. With the advent of cheap, disposable, well-fitted vinyl, latex and nitrile gloves, however, technicians now have an effective hand-care option. And with the rise of computer-assisted vehicle repair, they have new motivation to keep their fingers clean.

And these days, clean, undamaged hands is a sign of professionalism.
"We’re all trying to elevate the standards of the auto trade but how does it look when we go to a party on the weekend and our hands are all covered in grease? People can tell what we do for a living before we even tell them," says Brian Madeley, owner of Madeley Automotive and Diagnostic Service in Kingston, ON. "I’ve seen mechanics come in on a Monday morning and their hands are still dirty from Friday afternoon. What does that say about our professionalism?"

Madeley says all the technicians at his shop wear gloves when they work – probably because of the example he sets.

"I think I might have been the first guy in Kingston wearing gloves," he says. "Some shop owners would stop in my shop while I was working and would say "Gee, I wouldn’t hire a mechanic who wore gloves!" But I don’t think that’s not a very progressive position to take."

He says his own motivation for wearing gloves is primarily for cleanliness. But the side benefit is that it dramatically reduces cuts and bruises, protects the hands from dangerous solvents, keeps the interior of vehicles clean when you get in and out of them, and makes it easier to present a professional image to customers.

"Just because you’re a mechanic doesn’t mean you have to be a grease ball," he says. "I use the gloves as a marketing tool for my shop, in a way. I’ve got customers who call me "Dr. Madeley" because I’ve got gloves on. And they perceive me as more of a professional because I take more care with my personal appearance than the guy who’s covered in dirt."

He doesn’t use gloves on every job, but certainly most.

The gloves come in different sizes, so you can always get one that fits, but when you get into those intricate jobs, they’re not usually dirty jobs anyway. It’s usually a clean and tidy part of the car anyway, usually an electronic component."

Although he personally goes through about 10 sets of gloves in a typical week, he says he still saving money because he doesn’t use as much soap anymore. Plus, he’s saving time and wear-and-tear on his hands.

Derek Peace, a first-year apprentice who works for Brian, says all his experience in the repair bay is with gloves on. So far they haven’t been an impediment to productivity.

"In some situations you have to take them off to work your fine motor skills," he admits, "but it’s surprising how many jobs you can do wearing gloves."

Though he knows some guys who say they couldn’t work with gloves on, he believes anyone who gives them a try would get accustomed to them fairly quickly.

Ken MacKinnon, who works at Williams Esso in nearby Amherstview, ON, says gloves give technicians a new tool for keeping clean.

"When I first started out in the trade, I was dirty from head to toe. Now that’s not the case. You learn to work a little smarter," he says.

"I got out of the automotive business for a short time and during that time, gloves became the thing that more and more technicians were wearing. It was a small trend, but you saw it. I think it’s a good thing."

He disagrees with the blanket statement that you can’t feel things properly through gloves.

"There’s a period when you have to get used to them but after you’ve done that, you find it’s hard not to wear them," he says. "But more importantly, I don’t need all the chemicals going into my skin. That’s one of the biggest issues, all the chemicals that we come into contact with in an average day."

He keeps three kinds of gloves in his tool box: nitrile, latex and vinyl.

"Latex are good as long as you’re not into chemicals The vinyl gets used most frequently, for whenever I’m working with brake fluid or chemicals like that — and they’re a good alternative to latex, if you’re allergic to latex. The nitrile also works well against chemicals but they come in a range of thicknesses for when you’re doing tougher jobs and have to protect your hands more."
Gloves can even reduce the impact of repetitive strain on hands, stemming from frequent use of tools like impact wrenches, pneumatic tools and even screwdrivers.

Despite the obvious benefits, however, MacKinnon says the biggest obstacle to the use of gloves in the automotive aftermarket is outdated preferences.

"I think it’s more mindset than anything else. Anyone who wears them for a few months will get adjusted to them. You do have to get used to them. But people who don’t use them are either of the old school or just haven’t given them a chance," he says. "There are still some people who would say, "Geez, is that person ever gay because they’re wearing gloves!" I hate to say it, but that’s the silly reason some people won’t wear gloves."

Studies have shown that technicians are susceptible to a lot of damage because of the work they do and the environment they work in. In addition, with all the hand-washing that goes on, many technicians develop dermatitis, chapped skin, and rashes.

Thom Kuhn, of Precision Automotive in Orleans, ON, near Ottawa, says gloves have cleared up a perpetual problem with dry and cracked skin on his hands.

"The skin around my fingers and thumb always used to split and I could hardly bend my fingers because of frequent washing," he says. "The gloves fixed that right up. Actually my hand sweats a little in the glove, and that keeps them moist, which is good. And there’s a powder coating on the inside of the gloves, which also helps."

He wears nitrile gloves because he has an allergic reaction to latex – a common malady.

"I used to go home and put cream on my hands, but it takes a long time for them to heal, especially when you’re working in an environment like this every day."

After a few months of wearing gloves, his hands were in much better condition.

"People look at my hands and say, "You’re a mechanic? No way!" They used to be able to tell right away, because you can’t wash all the dirt away. I used to have dirt under my nails all the time. It’s not there anymore," he says.

"Look, life’s not paradise," says Madeley. "Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty to do a dirty job. But when you can be productive and still stay clean, why not do that?"

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1 Comment » for Labor of glove

    I’ve been wondering what was happening with this story. It has often been said that a safety certificate is not a warranty on a vehicles condition, and that it is only to verify that the vehicle met the minimum standards on the day it was inspected. If that is the case, then what grounds do they have to hold the technician liable a month after it was inspected? It would be interesting to know what part of the truck “did not meet safety standards”, what part did it/they play in the crash and how they came to that conclusion. Lots more information to be uncovered regarding this. Thanks for keeping us posted Allan.

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