There are 40 billion latex gloves produced each year. Most of these go to the health-care sector. Despite this, studies estimate that up to 6% of the population has latex sensitivity. And within health care, one study suggests that up to 17% of workers may have an adverse reaction to latex. This represents a significant workplace hazard. That means, conducting an appropriate risk assessment before using latex gloves is vital.
Who is at Risk From Latex Gloves?
Those most at risk of a reaction to latex are health-care workers and those who use latex gloves in trades such as catering. Vehicle mechanics and electronics workers also need to have risk to health assessed. Any assessment of hazards should also look at people in the general population who have sensitivities.
This latter group includes people who need frequent surgery; people with certain types of food allergy such as an aversion to kiwi fruit or bananas; and those who have an atopic allergic disease such as eczema.
What Causes Latex Allergy?
Latex is a natural product. Its full name is natural rubber latex (NRL). NRL comes from the Hevea brasiliensis tree. The more common name is the rubber tree. It is widespread in parts of Asia. NRL is a milk-like fluid that’s in strong demand.
Manufacturers use it not just for gloves but also in many products that are a part of day-to-day life. But from the late 1980s, the use of NRL gloves boomed. This was in response to the hazards of infection posed by bacteria and viruses such as hepatitis B and HIV.
NRL gloves provide protection, but contain proteins. These are common in natural products. It’s the proteins, however, that can cause the hazard of an allergic reaction.
Type I Latex Allergy
Doctors refer to an allergic reaction prompted by the proteins in NRL as a Type I allergy. The reaction may be serious, and some deaths have occurred.
The usual symptoms are hives (urticaria), asthma, sneezing, and runny eyes. Occasionally, people suffer anaphylaxis. Their blood pressure drops, they find it hard to breathe, and they may pass out.
It’s possible for people to work with latex for years without experiencing Type I symptoms. Then the symptoms start without warning.
What can make the situation worse is the powder often used on latex gloves. The powder – cornflour – attracts the NRL proteins to it. When the powder brushes off the gloves and enters the atmosphere, so do the proteins. A sensitive person may therefore have Type I symptoms without even touching latex gloves.
There is no cure for a Type I allergy. But doctors can prescribe medication to ease the symptoms.
Type IV Allergy
The other form of allergy to latex is Type IV. There are various chemicals used in the latex glove manufacturing process. Among these are mercaptobenzothiazoles, dithiocarbamates and thiurams. These may cause a Type IV allergic reaction.
The reaction isn’t instant. It happens up to two days after exposure to latex gloves.
The type IV allergy appears as a rash. This is scaly, itchy and red. It begins on hands and forearms. It may then spread.
It’s important to contact a doctor without delay to ease the symptoms.
Avoiding Allergic Reactions to Latex Gloves
Those with a Type I or Type IV allergy to latex must never use the gloves. They should also avoid areas where the powder from the gloves may be in the air.
Employees with a latex allergy must alert their managers or supervisors to the problem. There are non-latex gloves available. Employers should seek expert advice on the ones that are best for a given situation. Gloves without latex must be supplied as part of the employers duty of care to workers. Failing to do so might leave a workplace open to legal action if significant harm was suffered as a result of a reaction to latex gloves.