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The Evolution of Hand Protection in Today’s “Cleaner” Workplace

Patrick Boshell
May 20, 2014
Hand Protection with Gloves

While the industrial workplace has changed dramatically in the past 50 years, hand protection and hand cleaning solutions have not.  It’s time to bring these practices and products in line with their 21st century environs. 


Seeing Beyond the Glove


Facility and safety managers implicitly understand the need to protect workers’ hands from harsh chemicals, temperature extremes or hazardous materials. For most, the protection that comes immediately to mind is a good pair of gloves. Few make the link between safety issues and care of the actual hands themselves.


These hands, which might be subjected to anything from dirt and potential irritants to temperature extremes, frequent hand washing and other “wet” conditions, should be the greater concern for employers.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10-15 percent of all occupational illness is caused by skin disease. Arduous working conditions can lead to skin problems ranging from chapped skin to occupational dermatitis.


The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that occupation skin disorders are one of the most common types of occupational illness, with estimated annual costs exceeding $1 billion. The CDC also estimates that up to 40% of workers will suffer a skin issue at some point in their working life and that more than half of working time lost through industrial diseases is due to dermatitis.  In addition to pain, suffering and possible permanent damage, these employee skin issues result in lost productivity, increased absenteeism and possible OSHA and health & safety violations. With all this in mind, it’s clear there is a need to look beyond protective gloves to address the care of hands themselves.


Ironically, while the industrial workplace has gotten far less “dirty” over the past several decades, hand care products remain as strong and abrasive as ever, their cleansing abilities often far surpassing the users actual requirement.  Many of the messiest industrial jobs are now automated, many companies have switched to less caustic raw materials, and many “cleaner and leaner” manufacturing methods are now in place. Yet, industrial hand cleaning provision in many workplaces remains largely unchanged, exposing workers to much stronger ingredients and compounds than are necessary to get the job done. The result is a continuing cycle of hand irritation and potential skin disease that should be preventable.


A History of Hand Hygiene Products


The first industrial soap was introduced to the market in the 1890s, followed by industrial powdered hand soap in the early 1900s.  Both were widely used and effective for cleaning, but also often highly abrasive and damaging to the skin.  In addition, these early options increased the chance of spreading germs through dispensing methods that essentially meant sharing from a bucket or bulk container. Later, workers turned to a variety of harsh, home-brewed concoctions such as paraffin (kerosene), sand and petrol to remove oil and grime after a hard day’s work.  But along with grime, these creative cleaning agents also removed natural oils, leading to dry, cracked skin and a high incidence of occupational dermatitis.


While the format of cleaning compounds has changed over time from the gelled kerosene of the mid-1940s to the liquid plus abrasive favored today, the requirement for strong cleaning performance has essentially remained the same; many products targeted at the industrial market remain as strong and hostile to hands as they were a generation ago.  Given the changes in contemporary manufacturing and industrial environments, these products are far much more powerful than they need to be.


Overcoming Skin Care Challenges of the Past


A significant challenge is that many people are still using products that are just too strong for their needs, even though new heavy duty products are available with much milder ingredients.  This is often because a cleansing product may be selected to meet the requirements of all employees despite the fact there may be varying needs in the workforce. "All too often we hear about the 'noisy minority', those workers who vocalize loudly their dissatisfaction with a product that is actually OK for the majority; nonetheless, managers make a change to keep them quiet," says Paul Blount, Marketing Director, Deb Group Ltd.


The answer is for managers to make themselves aware and embrace the latest developments in professional skin care science - to adopt a more flexible skin care program that reflects the actual needs of the whole workforce and not the 'noisy minority'.  "In fact, it is often the 'noisy minority' who have the worst hand skin condition and the one's in greatest need of a dedicated approach to prevent serious occupational dermatitis," Blount adds.


By working with specific manufactures who have a dedicated expertise in professional skin care, managers can be closely guided through the right approach for their organization by creating a completely tailored skin care program that does not just help to ensure workers hands are clean, but also that they are in good condition and free of occupational skin disease.  "The overall message is that it's time for employers to get serious about skin care in their workplace and not continue with practices that belong long into the last century," Blount concludes.


The New Rules for Hand Protection


  1. Think beyond the glove. The use of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) may not always be possible and employers should provide appropriate protective hand creams and hand washing facilities close to work areas whether PPE is available or not.
  2. Assess. Conduct a risk assessment of current work practices including contact with substances which may represent a danger to the skin, such as harsh chemicals or abrasive materials and try to minimize the potential contact through workplace design and operating procedures.
  3. Educate. Institute staff training and communication to increase employee awareness and encourage compliance with safety regulations or recommendations.
  4. Look around. Managers should engage with expert suppliers to ensure they keep up to date with new products, processes, working practices or Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), as required.
  5. Work a system. Introduce a Skin Safety Program that is specifically tailored to address the skin care needs of each location.
  6. Remember that even gloved hands need protection.  Studies have shown that, due to sweating and abrasion against the skin, even gloved hands are susceptible to skin disease.  Consider offering a specialist protective cream to help specifically protect hands working under gloves.
  7. Sustainability matters.  Look for products that have been bio-certified and eco-accredited to minimize the impact that washing workers hands has on the environment.
  8. Use only what you need.  Don’t use more strength or quantity than is actually required. For many workplaces the use of specialist Foam Cleansers are an excellent choice for efficient yet mild cleansing and will reduce the amount of soap used per hand wash.


The industrial workplace has changed and safety & facility professionals need to help lead the way in updating professional skin care provision to better suit the modern working environment. After many years of working with employers, Deb has learned that investing in improving skin care provision can flow right back to the bottom line.  By educating yourself on this issue and exploring new options available, you can provide your employees with a happier, healthier, more sustainable and more cost effective work environment.

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