Harsh winter weather can wreak havoc on employees’ hands. Prolonged spells of cold weather reduce the moisture in the air, which leads to a drying effect on the skin. Frequent hand-washing can worsen the issue since washing with soap and water removes lipids and natural oils from the hands as well as germs, soils and greases. Workers in cold and freezing environments are at high risk of experiencing severe skin dryness, which is a serious issue often overlooked and can result in more advanced, painful and costly problems such as dermatitis.
Although the number of cases of irritant contact dermatitis in Canada is not known at this time, in Ontario, 1,000 compensation claims are reported for contact dermatitis each year. Meanwhile, U.S. statistics estimate that up to 40 per cent of workers will suffer from occupational dermatitis at some point in their working lives. Dermatitis can become a financial burden to the employee, as well as the employer. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 50 per cent of all working time lost to industrial illness is due to dermatitis. Just one case of occupational dermatitis can cost an employer approximately $3,500 in workers’ compensation claims and an average disability of 23.9 days, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
When skin is exposed to potentially harmful substances and environments, the implementation of safe working practices and appropriate protective equipment should be used. However, when skin exposure cannot be avoided, using an appropriate skin protection cream can reduce the risk of occupational skin disorder and keep skin healthy.
Educate Your Workers
In order to prevent skin damage, workers must be educated about the importance of maintaining healthy skin, especially as temperatures drop, and how doing so can prevent doctor visits and lost work time. Employees often think that having cracked or dry skin is simply part of the job, not realizing cracked skin can lead to more severe problems because it allows harmful substances to more easily penetrate the skin’s outer layer. Education on how to safely and effectively remove those substances from their hands during the workday and once their workday is complete is critical.
A three-step program can help prevent skin irritation. It should be specific to the substances being handled and include:
- A pre-work protection cream
- A cleaner
- An after-work restore cream
Before the Workday Begins
A pre-work cream can be used to help maintain the integrity of the outer skin layer. Proper selection of the pre-work cream is important; it should be matched to the specific work environment. Protective pre-work creams can be used under gloves or without gloves to help prevent skin irritation and maintain healthy skin for easier skin cleansing.
Encouraging employees to apply a cream prior to work can be a challenge. However, without proper protection, the everyday use of common workplace chemicals, degreasers, solvents and just plain abrasions will take its toll on the outer skin layer, called the stratum corneum.
Educating employees will help them recognize potential skin irritants and sensitizers, and understand the precautions to take. Once identified, the appropriate pre-work creams should be dispensed from a location easily accessible to employees. Small, portable sample sizes tend to get misplaced. A wall-mounted dispenser near the wash-up area or locker room is preferable.
Training on proper use and application of pre-work creams is also very important. The back of the hand is often missed when applying creams, but that skin is thinner than the skin of the palm, making it that much more important to cover well. Also, instruct employees to apply cream between the fingers, in the nail beds, and on the wrists and forearms.
In addition, training posters, pamphlets and instructional videos help support the education of employees on the use of proper pre-work skin creams.
Choosing the Right Cleaner
The type of hand cleaner selected is vitally important to skin health. A common misconception is that a hand cleanser’s performance is measured by its ability to clean hands aggressively. Whereas, in actuality, most cleansers far surpass the user’s actual requirements.
Many industrial cleansers also contain dangerous ingredients like petroleum distillates. Derivatives of crude oil, these solvents not only irritate hands but are absorbed through the skin and, over time, can lead to harmful levels of toxins in the body. Low-solvent and solvent-free cleansers are a safer option. It’s important to select a product that takes into consideration the impact on the hands, yet is still powerful and effective for the job.
When antimicrobial hygiene is required, workers should use alcohol sanitizer as often as possible in preference to washing with cleanser and water. Contrary to perceptions, a well-formulated sanitizer will not dry the hands as much as washing with water. This is because the lipids and oils are not removed by rinsing.
Heal Your Hands After the Workday is Done
Frequent skin contact with hazardous substances and cold conditions requires an effective after-work cream in order to help the skin heal and regenerate. Most people are familiar with the benefits of using a good skin moisturizer to replace lost moisture and oil, especially during the winter months when the lower humidity often results in additional moisture loss. In addition, the use of a harsh hand cleaners can aggravate the condition. Even the most skin-friendly hand cleanser can leave the skin dry after frequent use.
Restore creams improve skin strength by moisturizing, nourishing and conditioning the skin, preventing it from becoming dry or damaged, which can eventually lead to occupational skin disease. Restore cream should be applied after working, either at the end of a shift or before a long break from working, such as a lunch break. Workers should apply restore cream at least once daily.
A lot to Cover
The skin is the largest organ of the body, comprising 3,000 square inches. Therefore, proper skin care is crucial to an individual’s health and safety, especially during the winter months. The skin is often exposed to chemicals, physical irritants, mechanical stress and environmental factors. Workers should avoid dry conditions when possible and reduce their exposure to harsh environments. By using skin-compatible products in the correct manner, workers who suffer from skin irritation problems can see immediate results. An effective skin care program goes a long way in reducing your company’s risk, as well as improving safety and health for your workers this winter.
Andreas Klotz is technical product manager at Deb Group, the world’s largest leading away-from-home skin-care company. He holds extensive experience in professional skin care products to prevent work-related occupational skin diseases. For more information on making hands matter in the workplace, visit www.debgroup.com.