Understanding the habits of employees is the first step to encouraging higher hygiene and skin care standards. (DEB Group photo)

The Invisible Threat Lurking Under Gloves

Gloves should always fit the hands of the workers they belong to for best results. Skin care programs work the same way.

Many professions require personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves, to be worn in order to prevent workers from coming in contact with hazardous chemicals, extreme temperatures, and harmful germs. However, workers often remove protective gloves at the end of the day only to find their skin wasn't protected from one of the biggest workplace threats: occupational skin disorders (OSDs).

OSDs affect more than 13 million workers in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).1 Including contact dermatitis or work-related eczema (WRE), OSDs are an invisible threat to health, safety, and efficiency in the workplace. From dry, red, and irritated skin to deep cuts vulnerable to infection, workers with unhealthy hands can harm a business in numerous ways.

Gloves are not the only method to protect hardworking hands. Effective yet gentle hand cleansers and creams can protect the skin and help reduce the negative effects of wearing gloves. In order to keep employee hands healthy and happy, it’s important for employers to understand how to best protect workers’ skin and promote a positive hand hygiene-compliant environment.

Visible Consequences
Red, irritated, and dry hands are often considered just "part of the job," but OSDs can cause severe, visible consequences for a company. One case of OSD can cost an employer approximately $3,500 in workers' compensation claims, resulting in an average of about 24 days of disability, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Skin diseases also can decrease productivity and employee morale and lead to health and safety violations.

Gloves may protect employees from harmful substances but if they're worn for too long, skin turns wrinkly, dry, and soft. Wearing gloves for extended periods also causes moisture to build up and harbor within, increasing the risk of fungal infections. Broken skin can lead to other skin infections like Streptococcus pyogenes and S. aureus, which cause red, painful, swollen skin with ulceration, oozing, or pustules.

Some OSDs are worsened by certain skin care products, making it crucial to check the ingredients of the products you’re providing employees. In fact, many industrial hand cleansers contain petroleum distillates and other hydrocarbon solvents to remove heavy soilings such as tar, oil, grease, and wax. These ingredients can harm skin, causing dryness, irritation, or skin cracking. When the products meant to help cause harm, employees become discouraged to use them, furthering hand hygiene issues.

Handling the Threat
How can employers remove the threat of OSDs, yet keep employee hands safe and protected with gloves? Employers can start by incorporating a skin care program aimed to improve the skin health of their employees. Employers should look for a program that includes essential products, vital information, and one that positively changes behavior and hand health habits.

An effective skin care program should be customizable but always include a complete range of specialist skin care products. These products should protect, cleanse, sanitize, and restore skin and be scientifically proven, dermatologically tested, and environmentally certified. Look for a range of products that are designed for all skin types and preferences.

An effective skin care range includes:

  • A protective pre-work cream. Pre-work creams protect skin against a wide variety of workplace contaminants and working conditions. Find a pre-work cream that is non-greasy, perfume-free, and is compatible to use under all types of gloves. The sign of a great pre-work cream is when it absorbs into hands quickly, promoting smoother, healthier skin that is easier to clean at the end of a shift.
  • A range of hand cleansers for different jobs. From washroom foam soaps to heavy-duty hand cleansers, an ideal skin care program should include a number of options employers can pick from. Steer clear of cleansers that use borax, pumice or petroleum-based solvents. Instead, look for a cleanser that uses alternative, natural ingredients and bio-scrubbers, such as walnut shells, cornmeal, and olive pit.
  • Specialist hand sanitizers. When water and soap aren't available, effective sanitizers help keep hardworking hands clean. Find a foam sanitizer that easily kills a broad spectrum of germs while remaining perfume free.
  • A restorative after-work cream. After-work creams moisturize, condition, and restore skin, making it an essential product for workers who use their hands every day. Similar to pre-work creams, after-work products should be dye and perfume free, non-greasy, and should quickly absorb into skin. Look for a restoration cream that naturally repairs lightly damaged skin and includes safe, gentle, and conditioning ingredients.

Today, electronic skin care compliance systems are readily available and promote healthy skin at work by providing vital, ongoing information to managers. To reduce risks, find an electronic system that is easy to set up and use and delivers web-based reports on hand hygiene compliance. Monitored dispensers for hand creams and cleansers capture all usage events to show employers when employees use, and don’t use, the product. Understanding the habits of employees is the first step to encouraging higher hygiene and skin care standards.

Finding the Right Fit
Gloves should always fit the hands of the workers they belong to for best results. Skin care programs work the same way. Finding a skin care program that is effective, reliable, and convenient for both employees and the employer is essential to preventing OSDs and improving worker health.

Adopt a program that offers a clear and practical approach to create behavioral change and improve skin health. Certain programs can help organizations evaluate the skin health within the company, establish goals, and provide insight on what will work best for a team through uniquely structured education, training, and feedback. A great skin care program should drive lasting improvement and positive behavioral change among employees. Requiring high standards of behavior improves employee skin health, reduces risk to an organization, and saves money.

Simply providing cleansers and creams won't solve the problem right away. Remind employees regularly and encourage use through educational seminars and other teaching methods. It's also important for leaders to follow these steps themselves to further encourage employees to take skin care seriously. Make sure employees understand the range of OSDs, symptoms, and when and how to properly report a skin health hazard. Prevention is key because, if caught early, OSDs can heal more quickly and don't pose a big threat to the employee or employer. If caught too late, it could take days or even months to get a worker's hands back in healthy shape.

Gloved Hands, Healthy Hands
It's time to change the status quo and remove the invisible threat OSDs pose on businesses and their employees. Red, sore, and dry hands should not be considered "normal" in any working environment. Instead, skin care products should be considered just as necessary as gloves and other PPE equipment.

After all, when used properly, creams and cleansers can reduce turnover, workers' compensation claims, and lost workdays and improve employee safety, satisfaction, and morale.

1. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/skin/default.html

This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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