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Friday, 23 February

For Hands That Do

Paul Jakeway explains why workplaces should think beyond the provision of handwashing opportunities – and implement a structured skin care programme that keeps the skin of employees both protected and healthy.

Regular hand washing with soap is crucial to contain the spread of germs and bacteria – and prevent infections. That’s why it’s at the core of any hand hygiene programme for the workplace. Employers need to make sure hand washing facilities are accessible to all employees.

But for a hand hygiene programme to be at its most effective, it requires other elements – especially if employers want to avoid the threat of occupational skin disorders: skin problems acquired in the workplace. Those can range from mild, short-term skin irritations to serious conditions such as occupational dermatitis. At the extreme end of the spectrum, there is skin cancer.

Research leaves no doubt about the seriousness of the problem: every year, around 3 million working days are lost because of occupational skin disorders, costing the EU an estimated €600 million. It is the second most common work-related health problem in Europe – yet it still goes largely unreported.

The most prevalent type of skin disorder reported in the workplace is occupational dermatitis, which can be defined as an inflammation of the skin caused by the working environment or by skin contact with a damaging substance.

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.

According to figures by the Health and Safety Executive, an estimated 84,000 people have dermatitis caused or made worse by their work across all industries in the UK.

The costs can be significant: if their employees are affected, companies might not only have to pay the salary of those absent due to occupational skin disorder; 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 disease, businesses are potentially faced with the costs of recruiting temporary or replacement staff, training, and providing support to other staff. In a worst-case scenario, employers could be burdened with compensation costs. And if news of incidents spread, bad publicity is inevitable.

In a first step, education is crucial: workers need to know how serious an issue occupational skin disorders are – and what they can do to prevent being affected. Which products can be used? When should they be applied? What is the right hand-washing technique, and when should hands be washed? When are cleansers appropriate, when sanitisers? And why should I use creams?

The best way to structure an educational programme is the adherence to a dedicated 3-step programme for skin care, which identifies three crucial moments: using protection cream before work; appropriate hand cleansers after hands become contaminated; and restorative creams at the end of the day.

Specially formulated to leave a protective layer on the surface of the skin, protective creams 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 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.

If outdoor working is involved, UV radiation should be taken into account. Prolonged unprotected exposure to the sun does not only cause skin damage; ultimately, we know it can increase the risk of skin cancer. If UV protection is integrated into staff education on skin care – ideally combined with sun cream that is widely available to workers – a huge step can be taken towards protecting workers from this threat.

Skin care education should not be a one-off event, but an ongoing conversation. Materials such as leaflets, posters, and information boards are widely available from skin care experts to help increase awareness. Regular staff meetings are a good way to keep skin care on everyone’s mind on a day-to-day basis.

But educating employees on hand hygiene protocols is futile if the correct skin care products are not present in the workplace. Accessible, easy-to-use dispensers filled with appropriate skin care products need to be placed in critical locations to encourage hand hygiene compliance from all employees.

Different working environments have their own specific requirements, and any products should always be sourced from a reputable company who offer advice and guidance on the use of the products. By taking into account the potential hazards the skin might come into contact with, as well as the specific nature of the work, skin experts are able to suggest the right cleansers and creams.

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. Dispensers also assure that the correct amount of product is used – minimising waste and optimising cost in use.

Regular site audits can help to make sure a hand hygiene regime continues to be effective. Do our facilities comply with hand hygiene regulations? Is the cream dispensing equipment as accessible as it could be? Are we using the right products? Regular skin audits, meanwhile, are crucial to assure that the health of employees remains a priority. 

The implementation of a structured skin care programme that features the right products and equipment and as well as ongoing staff education can go a long way to keep the skin of employees both protected, and healthy.

Paul Jakeway works for skin care company, Deb

Article written by Paul Jakeway

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