If you were to glance at the hands of an industrial worker, it wouldn’t be surprising to see that their skin is dry and cracked. For many, having skin that is rough and cracked is considered normal and “just a part of the job.” In fact, a recent study found that out of 400 industrial workers, 93 percent had dry skin and 73 percent showed signs of work-related skin damage. Unfortunately, unhealthy skin can quickly lead to occupational skin disorders (OSDs), like dermatitis. OSDs are the second most common type of occupational disease and cost U.S. businesses over $11.5 billion every year.
There’s nothing normal about workers suffering from skin disease. It’s time to reevaluate worker skin expectations and reinforce the importance of healthy and smooth skin. A heavy duty cleanser, in addition to pre- and post-work creams has the potential to keep skin clean and strong – ready to take on any challenge the workday may bring.
Messy Job, Messy Hands
Industrial workers are exposed to a wide range of chemicals, degreasers, abrasions, extreme temperatures, solvents, oils and more on a day-to-day basis. The CDC reports that 13 million workers are exposed to chemicals that may be absorbed through their skin. One of the most common methods of protecting hands from these risks is to provide gloves to workers.
While gloves are an important part of personal protective equipment (PPE), and may even be required such as when working with chemicals, in many cases they may contribute to or even cause deterioration of skin health. Gloves are known to cause sweating, which breaks down the skin’s natural barrier and dries the skin, making hands cracked and sore. In addition, the sweat under gloves can harbor bacteria that contribute to fungal infections. When not required, workers often choose not to wear gloves. One study showed that workers reported wearing gloves only 28 percent of the time. Going without gloves may be preferred by a majority of workers, but it places hands directly in harm’s way.
Making matters worse, many industrial managers and workers don’t understand how to recognize early signs of OSDs and may not even know they have skin condition issues. If you were to ask managers if their workers struggle with dermatitis or OSDs, they would likely answer, “No.” However, if you were to ask them if their workers complain about dry, rough, cracked and sore hands, they would likely answer with an emphatic “Yes!” These are all symptoms of OSDs and can have very real consequences. Not only are there direct costs to treat OSDs, but there can be significant impacts to productivity and total worker health and wellbeing, including morale.
What can organizations do to mitigate these risks?
Skin Care Dos and Don’ts
While employers provide skin care products such as cleansers, it is important to remember that all products are not equal. Too frequently, cleansers are overly aggressive for the situation and can harm workers skin unnecessarily. Cleansing products should be selected based on the type and severity of contamination. Here are some key Dos and Don’ts when it comes to selecting skin care products:
Of all the risks facing hands each day, cleansing products shouldn’t be one of them! Oddly enough, many cleansers include harmful ingredients like petroleum distillates and pumice to remove heavy soilings. These ingredients can strip the skin of its natural barrier and cause micro-abrasions, or tiny cuts that harm to the skin. Instead, look for a cleanser that uses natural ingredients and bio-scrubbers like walnut shells, olive pit and cornmeal. This will ensure employees’ hands are thoroughly cleaned and will remain healthy and strong, meaning workers can get back to doing what’s most important.
Don’t assume creams are “one size fits all” or use creams with perfumes and leave hands feeling greasy. Studies show that 73 percent of workers with skin condition issues saw improvement in the condition of their skin after using a skin care regimen that included pre-work protective creams and post-work restorative creams. But don’t be fooled, there is no perfect cream that fits every scenario. Protective creams that are applied before working should be selected based on the type of contaminant being encountered to ensure effectiveness. Restorative creams applied after working should be selected based on the dryness or severity of skin condition.
Attention should also be paid to workers with allergies to perfumes and dyes, in which cases products that are free of these ingredients should be selected. Innovations formulations enable certain creams to be used under gloves and combat the effects of sweating. Remember, when gloves must be worn, it is critical to select products that are made specifically to be worn under gloves. In addition, look for products that absorb quickly and don’t leave a greasy after-feel, which your workers will appreciate. The primary goal of using creams is to provide an extra layer of protection to hands during and after work. Selecting the right creams supports PPE efforts and promotes healthy skin by helping to prevent undue exposures and by repairing damaged skin and conditioning hands with moisturizing ingredients.
Telling workers to keep hands clean and healthy is one thing, but if it isn’t reinforced regularly and integrated into the safety culture, workers can easily forget. Many industrial workers don’t have healthy skin because they don’t consider skin care products to be a necessary part of their work day routine, let alone a critical element of safety. It’s up to employers to reinforce the importance of healthy skin by providing appropriate products and using regular reminders, such as informational posters and educational seminars. Incorporating skin health evaluations and training into safety days can be very effective. It’s also important to make sure skin care products are accessible to all employees at all times, whether it’s by providing skin care stations or pocket-size creams workers can keep on hand.
The New Normal
Workers should not feel that having dry, rough and cracked hands is “just a part of the job.” If that is the case, everyone loses. This can impair worker productivity, diminish moral, and impact production levels. Hands are a workers most important tools, and should be treated as such and kept in good working condition. Redefining the way we approach skin health benefits workers and organization.
By considering skin care an essential element of a safety program, managers will be able to reduce many of the risks their workers face. Rather than reacting and responding to skin condition issues, try taking a preventative approach. Implementing a skin care program that incorporates pre-work protect creams and post-work restorative creams can reduce worker absences due to skin health issues, improve moral, and help employees be more productive. At the same time, you’ll avoid the expensive costs associated with treating cases of OSDs. Hardworking hands deserve the best, so don’t wait. Your hands will thank you!
 Blanciforti LA et al. Economic burden of dermatitis in US workers. Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine 2010; 52:1045-1054
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