Occupational skin disease, also known as contact dermatitis, is a common condition found in manufacturing plants where workers’ hands come in contact with harsh chemicals or are frequently exposed to water, solvents or other skin irritants. Many workers feel that having work-worn, dry, cracked hands — which can cause discomfort and slow down one’s productivity — is “part of the job.”

Dermatitis costs employers billions of dollars every year. Direct medical expenses for contact dermatitis alone are more than $1.4 billon, and productivity losses are estimated to be another $500 million.1

The National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA) reported that once workers acquire contact dermatitis, 75 percent of cases may become chronic.2A chronic skin condition will usually require ongoing medical care and lessen the worker’s quality of life.

Dry, damaged skin has lost oils and moisture that keep skin’s natural barrier function intact. Once the barrier layer of skin is compromised, it has a difficult time retaining natural oils and moisture, which starts a cycle of drying that will likely continue until these lost oils and moisture are replaced. Without replacing lost oils and moisture in damaged skin, it could dry to the point of cracking, which would allow irritants further into the skin and potentially into the bloodstream. Damaged skin is more likely to react with irritants than well-conditioned skin. This could lead to contact dermatitis.

Conditioning the skin often and washing the skin properly will help maintain good skin condition, which will ultimately help prevent contact dermatitis before it can become a permanent and painful problem.

Hazards to look for

The first step in preventing contact dermatitis is to find and reduce skin risks. There are four types of irritants found in manufacturing facilities — chemical, mechanical causes, physical agents, and biological and microbiological agents.
  1. Common chemical irritants are metalworking fluids, lubricants and oils, greases, solvents, paints, fiberglass, acids and even poorly formulated hand cleansers (typically from the surfactants). Metalworking fluids are a leading cause of contact dermatitis. Repeated contact with metalworking fluids and mists irritates and dries out skin.
  2. Common mechanical causes are metal chips and particles and fingertip work. Machining, milling, sanding or grinding may generate metal chips and dust that may abrade and irritate skin. This abrasion may compromise the natural barrier function of skin.
  3. Typical physical agents are glove usage, exposure to heat, exposure to cold and exposure to water. While gloves are a critical part of worker safety, gloves occlude the skin. This can affect the moisture content and damage skin when worn regularly or for extended periods. When the glove is removed, the skin will be particularly vulnerable to penetration by chemicals.3
  4. Common biological and microbiological agents include germ transmission and cross-contamination of foodborne pathogens. Germs that may cause illness are spread by hands, and illnesses can be passed around among co-workers.

Although you can’t eliminate these irritants from your facility, you can reduce the impact they have on your workers’ skin by providing the mildest, effective hand cleanser plus an alcohol-based instant hand sanitizer, coupled with a professional skin conditioner.

Proper washing

Aside from skin irritants, other factors such as providing workers with a weak bathroom lotion soap to clean grease and oil from their hands, can contribute to the dermatitis problem.

If workers don’t have convenient access to appropriate hand cleansers, irritants could remain on their skin for prolonged periods of time. This could allow dermal absorption or cause dry, irritated or damaged skin. Unauthorized cleansers like solvents or detergents are often used because the correct cleansers are not available or conveniently located. This could cause damage to skin, resulting in dry, irritated or even cracked skin.

Barrier creams can provide a false sense of security. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is not aware of any evidence that so-called “barrier” products are generally recognized as safe and effective. In 2000, the FDA, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, Office of Compliance, issued warning letters to several companies who were marketing products with purported protective (barrier) properties.4By using barrier creams, workers may not be getting the protection they think they are, which could lead to damaged skin.

Dispensers may also be a cause of poor employee skin care. If dispensers are broken, empty or not conveniently located, employees may not follow proper skin care protocols.

Skin maintenance

The best strategy for preventing occupational dermatitis is to maintain the skin’s natural barrier. Healthy, well-conditioned skin retains more moisture and is less likely to absorb and react to incidental exposure to irritants.

Provide workers with appropriate skin-care products. Depending on the job, the mildest, effective cleanser should be used. Each area within the plant should be evaluated based on the skin irritants present. A professional skin conditioner should be used throughout the plant. Placement of the products and dispensers is key to getting workers in the habit of using them.

Recent outcome studies in many different real-world manufacturing environments confirm dramatic results in improving skin condition — in two weeks or less. Workers following a regimen of an appropriate hand cleanser coupled with a skin conditioner could see and feel the difference in their own skin.

For example, in one test location after implementing the program, 71 percent of workers rated their skin as “good,” while only 5 percent of the control group did so. In all locations, scientific instruments were used to measure skin hydration — the amount of moisture in the outer layers of the skin — and objectively proved that the recommended skin-care regimen significantly improved workers’ skin condition versus an unchanged control group.5

By providing the mildest, effective hand cleanser possible for employees coupled with a professional skin conditioner and basic skin-care education, you can help improve your employees’ skin condition and prevent occupational contact dermatitis.

©2006 GOJO Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.

SIDEBAR: What NOT to do with your hands

  • NEVER expose unprotected skin to harsh chemicals.
  • NEVER use harsh detergents, solvents or irritating chemicals, such as gasoline, turpentine, acetone or benzene, to clean skin. Always use an approved skin cleansing product.
  • NEVER eat, drink or smoke with dirty hands. Harmful chemicals can enter the body through the mouth and could damage vital organs.
  • DON’T use regular bar or lotion soap if your hands are full of grease and grime. A weak soap can cause you to scrub too hard to get your hands clean. Use an appropriate hand cleanser.
  • DON’T use abrasives or brushes that aren’t designed for your skin.
  • NEVER wipe hands with a dirty shop towel. Shop towels may be holding shreds of metal or other debris that can damage your hands.
  • NEVER put hands covered with chemicals, irritants or soils into gloves. This traps contaminants against the skin and can cause irritation or permeation into the skin.