Cleaning professionals are some of the unsung heroes in every company. Without them, floors would be sticky, carpets dusty, windows streaky. The dishes would pile in the kitchen sink, rubbish bins overflow. Far from the clean and tidy environments most people are used to, workplaces would be dirty or messy, perhaps even filthy.
Exposure to dirt and filth is inevitable. Germs and bacteria are an issue. And there’s frequent contact with both water and chemicals. All these can be a threat to the skin of cleaning professionals – with serious consequences for their health and well-being.
Skin disorders – one of the most common work-related problems in Europe
Skin problems in the workplace are collectively known as occupational skin disorders. They can range from mild, short-term skin irritations to serious conditions such as occupational dermatitis, friction callosity (the skin’s reaction to friction and pressure), or infectious skin diseases (compromised skin is much more likely to absorb the pathogens that cause bacterial, viral or fungal infections). At the extreme end of the spectrum, there is skin cancer.
Research leaves no doubt about the seriousness of the problem. Occupational skin disease is the second most common work-related health problem in Europe. Every year, around 3 million working days are lost because of it – costing the EU an estimated €600m.
The most prevalent type of skin disorder reported in the workplace is occupational dermatitis. The symptoms and the seriousness of the condition vary widely, depending on the type and length of exposure to an irritant, as well as the susceptibility of the person concerned. If untreated the condition can spread to other parts of the body, and correct early treatment is essential.
Cleaning professionals run a high risk of contracting skin conditions such as occupational dermatitis for two reasons: cleaning involves a lot of “wet work” – activities that require repeated exposure to or immersion in water. And it exposes the skin to a wide variety of chemicals: floor and window cleaners, preservatives, ammonia, solvents, degreasers, and bleach can all act as irritants.
What can be done to prevent occupational dermatitis in the cleaning profession?
Effective prevention of occupational dermatitis requires full cooperation between everyone involved but the prime responsibility lies with the employer. All current legislation relating to skin safety in the workplace derives from the Health and Safety Work Act, 1974, which requires employers to conduct risk assessments and introduce appropriate procedures to remove or minimise the identified risks.
Employers have a Duty of Care to assess the risks that could cause occupational dermatitis – and take the necessary preventative actions. Guidelines from the Health and Safety Executive highlight that they are legally obliged to provide a safe working environment and to carry out regular safety assessments.
One of the most effective contributions to the successful prevention of occupational dermatitis in the workplace is the implementation of a structured skin care programme. Where it is not possible to protect the skin of cleaning professionals against workplace contaminants, cleaning and taking care of the hands is an important part of the developing a proactive, holistic stance against occupational dermatitis.
Implementing a 4-step skin care system
A proven 4-step approach to skin care identifies four crucial moments for treatment of the skin: applying protective cream before work; using appropriate hand cleansers regularly after contamination; hand sanitising where running water is not immediately accessible; and applying restorative cream at the end of the day.
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 when wearing gloves, and make the skin quicker and easier to clean.
Restorative products are a crucial element of any skin care programme for cleaning professionals. 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.
Education is crucial to successfully prevent occupational dermatitis
But it’s not enough to put the right products in the right places. The accessibility of soaps and creams can only go so far – if a skin care programme doesn’t include a dedicated programme of education and training. Employers need to make a real effort to inform their staff about the seriousness of occupational skin disorders, and about the steps they can take to avoid being affected.
Compliance is crucial to the success of any skin care programme. To achieve this staff need to be aware of much more than the fact that skin care products are available. When should soap and water be used, when is a sanitiser more appropriate? What is the correct technique for either? What are the key moments during the day to re-apply a pre-work cream? What is the right amount of after-work cream to use?
Hands-on training sessions, instructional multimedia programmes, and regular staff meetings can help to make sure that the effort to combat the threat of occupational skin disease is not just a one-off event that is quickly forgotten about – but an ongoing conversation.
Serious consequences – or real benefits
Neglecting the skin care of cleaning professionals can have serious consequences for an employer. If staff are effected by occupational dermatitis or other skin issues, staff moral might suffer considerably, while staff absences might result in lost productivity. If news of staff being affected by occupational skin disorders spread, bad publicity is almost inevitable. In worst cases, compensation claims could be on order.
If, on the other hand, employers take the issue seriously, and implement a structured skin care programme that includes both the right products and a dedicated programme of education and training, they are putting themselves in the best possible position to keep their employees safe and healthy – protecting those who do so much to make sure the rest of us work in environments that aren’t dirty, messy, or filthy, but clean, tidy, and pleasant.
 Source: European Agency for Safety and Health at Work
 Source: European Agency for Safety and Health at Work – https://osha.europa.eu/en/tools-and-publications/publications/factsheets/40
Liked the article? Why not leave us a comment.