Think of winter, and what comes to mind might be the open fire of a Sunday pub, or it might be a stroll around a Christmas market. For outdoor workers the picture is not always this romantic: working outdoors can come with serious risks. Weather conditions can have a serious impact on the health of workers. And no season is quite as harsh when it comes to this as winter – especially for the skin.
If this risk is not properly managed, it can affect a worker’s effectiveness in the short term – and cause serious harm in the long term.
It is crucial for Health & Safety Managers to understand how failing to adhere to skin care best practice can result in workers being affected by occupational skin disorders – skin problems acquired in the workplace. These can range from mild, short-term skin irritations due to the cold weather to serious conditions such as occupational dermatitis.
Occupational skin disorders are the second most common work-related health problem in Europe, representing more than 7% of all occupational illnesses. According to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, up to 40% of workers will suffer a skin issue at some point in their working life.
The costs can be significant: affected employers might not only have to pay the salary of those absent; they might also have to cover the overtime incurred by those stepping in, as well as any overall losses. If employees leave a company as the result of occupational skin disorders, businesses are potentially faced with the costs of recruiting temporary or replacement staff, training, and providing support to other staff.
Health & Safety Managers can go a long way to protect employees from the negative impacts of cold weather conditions and prevent the threat of occupational skin disorders – by implementing a structured skin care programme that is tailored to their specific industry. What could such a programme look like, and how would you go about implementing it?
In a first step, education is crucial: Health & Safety Managers need to make a real effort to inform their staff about the seriousness of the problem – and about the steps they can take to avoid being affected.
Regular staff meetings can help to achieve this, while posters and boards are a good way to keep up awareness on a day-to-day level. Leaflets and brochures should be made available for staff to read up on the issue whenever they have questions or concerns. Which products should be used when? What is the proper technique? Why are creams so important? Hands-on training sessions or instructional multimedia presentations can help to achieve the “buy in” from the workforce that will make a skin care programme successful.
It is important to keep in mind that winter requires different things from a skin care programme than summer. Skin care experts can provide suitable, industry-specific literature on these requirements; they can also help with one-to-one staff evaluations to measure and assess their skin condition. This allows staff to receive individual feedback on their skin health and advice on product usage or referral where appropriate. Conversations with experts will also help Health & Safety Managers to better understand the specific skin care requirements of their industry.
But the best education is futile, if the right products aren’t available. These should be specifically designed for the environment they are being used in, and they should always be sourced from a reputable company who offer advice and guidance on their use. By taking into account the specific nature of the work, skin care experts are able to suggest what is right for a specific industry.
In winter, creams are especially important. Protective creams are specially formulated to leave a protective layer on the surface of the skin. They can reduce direct contact with specific types of physical contaminants, help retain natural lipids and moisture in the skin, improve comfort and skin strength, and make the skin quicker and easier to clean.
Specialist creams have been developed to prevent hands, face and other exposed skin from getting dry under cold working conditions. An anti-freeze effect helps improve user comfort. Other products have been formulated to stop skin softening under gloves – especially important in winter, when gloves are likely to be worn even more often.
Restorative products are as important. Applied at the end of the day, they moisturise, nourish and condition the skin, improving its strength and preventing it from becoming dry or damaged. Regular use of restorative creams helps maintain the skin in a healthy condition throughout the winter months, when the skin can be especially prone to being sore, chapped and dry.
Hand washing with cleansers is essential: removing all dirt and contaminants from the skin at the end of the day and during work breaks is extremely important. Health & Safety Mangers should make sure that opportunities for this are accessible to all employees. Sanitisers, meanwhile, are recommended where access to running water is not convenient.
This is important for another reason: proper hand hygiene using cleansers and sanitisers is the most effective way to prevent the spread of germs and bacteria – and avoid infections. According to estimates, this practice could reduce the number of people catching colds by 45%. Colds and the flu can lead to decreased productivity and low staff morale, as well as the financial burden: sick leave due to colds is currently estimated to cost UK businesses £1.3 billion each year.
The installation of specifically designed, sealed cartridge dispensers for use with soaps, skin cleansers and creams is strongly recommended. Such dispensers provide the most hygienic skin care system, by reducing to a minimum the risk of cross-infection that can occur if a number of people extract the product from an open or communal container. In winter, when many of us are especially susceptible to falling ill with colds or the flu, this is especially important.
Health & Safety Managers should look for BioCote marked dispensers; a market leading antimicrobial technology supplier proven to achieve up to a 99.99% reduction in bacteria, mould and fungi over a 24 hour period. The presence of BioCote’s logo on dispensers reassures employees and customers that excellence in hand hygiene procedures is of paramount importance.
If products are available from easy-to-use, accessible dispensers, outdoor workers are much more inclined to use the right protective and restorative creams. Well-designed facilities are one of the best ways to encourage skin care best practice in the workplace, and improve skin health. If members of staff see others use skin care products regularly, they are more likely to do so themselves.
In a final step, Health & Safety Managers need to make sure that their efforts to take skin health seriously turns into an ongoing conversation with staff – not just a one-off event that is quickly forgotten about. By catalysing real and lasting behaviour change amongst employees, Health & Safety Managers can assure that the skin of outdoor workers is protected – not just in the cold winter months, but throughout the year.
 European Agency for Safety and Health at Work
 Centers for Disease Control & Prevention
 American Journal of Preventive Medicine
 Source: Royal Pharmaceutical Society, 2007
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