Every once in a while, a proposal comes along that leads one to wonder: Why? What's the need? It seems as though we're going to have e-gloves made from smart fabrics.
You might find it doubtful that a new sort of work glove, no matter how "smart," is capable of protecting construction workers from dangerous vibration levels. But the magic word nowadays is "sensors." They are in your phone, in your car, in your home humidifier, in all sorts of devices.
So yes, people are working on smart fabrics, like those used in the e-glove being developed at Nottingham Trent University in England.
Tiny sensors are knitted right into the gloves and aren't even visible. The gloves can be washed and worn without any damage to the technology they embody.
There are two researchers responsible for the gloves. One, Theodore Hughes-Riley, is a research fellow at the university. He's working on the sensors. The other is Tilak Dias of the university's School of Art and Design, where he leads the school's Advanced Textiles Research Group.
"Prolonged use of power tools can result in a variety of musculoskeletal, neurological and vascular disorders," he says.
He's quoted in a news release from the university as saying that "by using smart textiles, it could be possible to detect with accuracy when a worker is exposed to damaging levels of vibrations and help prevent such conditions from occurring in the first place."
The sensors being used are tiny — only two millimetres long. They and equally small accelerometers are encapsulated in micropods before being embedded into the yarns, which are knitted into gloves.
The idea is that when a dangerous level of exposure to vibrations is about to be experienced, a worker is alerted to stop.
During the last decade in England, more than 10,000 claims have been made for something called "vibration white finger" and the better-known carpal tunnel syndrome. The claimants are workers who regularly use power tools such as demolition hammers, hammer drills, chainsaws, sanders, grinders and any other tools that vibrate in a worker's hands.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is well known. It's a form of repetitive strain injury. Vibration white finger was new to me. It turns out that it is fairly well known as an industrial injury triggered by continuous use of vibrating handheld machinery. It is a disorder that affects the blood vessels, nerves, muscles and joints of the hand, wrist and arm and is said to affect tens of thousands of workers worldwide.
Vibration white finger can have several effects. There can be tingling, whiteness or numbness in the fingers with blood vessels and nerves affected.
At first it may only affect the fingertips and not be noticeable at the end of a day's work. But in more severe cases, whiteness can appear and move from the fingertips down to the knuckles.
With continued exposure, the fingers might turn red when exposed to the cold. And eventually there can be loss of manual dexterity.
All this is why workers using things like demolition hammers are wearing padded gloves. Best practices dictate that vibration exposure be assessed in terms of both acceleration amplitude and duration — how severe and how long. That's because using a tool that vibrates slightly for a long time can be just as damaging as using a heavy vibrating tool for a short time.
There are regulations about vibration of course and they vary from place to place, but the use of anti-vibration gloves is common. They're usually made with thick, soft material in the palm, but not all of them provide protection for the wrist.
All this is what set Dias and Hughes-Riley to work on their e-glove project.
Hughes-Riley says that "by lowering the risk of exposure to dangerous levels of vibrations, we can help improve the lives of thousands of construction workers around the world by helping them to prevent what can become a permanent industrial disease."
That would make wearing the gloves a smart thing to do.
Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.