Hands Up

Health and safety in the workplace is improving, but skin health is still an overlooked area.

There is one simple fact that can often get lost in the discussions over minor changes to procedures or the reluctance to adopt new regulations – health and safety compliance saves lives. In fact, it probably has a better success rate than many comic-book heroes. In the last 30 years, fatal injuries have fallen by 85 per cent, while non-fatal injuries have dropped by more than three-quarters, according to HSE.

However, there is still one major issue that many workplaces around the world continue to overlook. Initiatives exist to tackle falls from height, respiratory diseases and injuries caused by machinery, but how many organisations have realised the risk their workplaces pose to their employees’ skin health – let alone taken action to prevent the development of occupational skin disorders (OSDs).

OSDs are a major problem for workers across every industry and sector. Around four in 10 employees suffer from a skin issue at some point in their working life, according to the Centre for Disease, Control and Prevention in the United States, and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that most employees underestimate the severity of the issues with their skin health – not to mention the impact on their lives.

Around four in 10 employees suffer from a skin issue at some point. Photograph: iStock

Many workers who develop an OSD will spend time off work, which affects their morale and reduces their earnings – as well as hitting their employer’s productivity. There is also the possibility that the incidence of OSDs may be underestimated by 10 to 50 times, according European Dermatology Forum White Book (Skin diseases).

This can be changed by helping employees to speak out about their skin health, making this seemingly invisible topic, visible. It is critical that workers share their perspectives with health and safety managers so that its importance can be realised.

Many workers fail to understand the effect their working conditions have on their hands – or that skin health is important – until it is too late. This often leaves them with sore, cracked hands – making it difficult to grip tightly onto tools or machinery because it becomes too painful. Some workers dread the day ahead, simply because they have not looked after the skin health of their hands.

It is important for employers to remember their legal obligations when it comes to the skin health of their workers. Under the law, employers have a duty to look after the health, safety and welfare of their employees when in the workplace. This means they are required to provide adequate welfare facilities, which includes the right protective and restorative creams for any given task.

Employers also have to provide workers with the information and training they need to help them maintain their own health and safety – and that is often where the problems begin.

Despite industrial organisations providing products like pre-work creams to help workers protect their hands, not all provide a comprehensive education about skin health. It is clear there is a need for more skin care training in the workplace. Most employees do not receive the corresponding training on why, how and when these protective and moisturising creams should be used. For example, workers should be advised that the wearing of protective gloves can even cause issues and an under glove gel would be recommended.

That is why all health and safety managers are encouraged to introduce an effective three-step programme for skin care that includes products that protect, cleanse and restore the skin – as well as specific training on how and when to use each product, in the form of toolbox talks.

Before work, employees should apply a protective cream to reduce contact with potential contaminants and irritants, while improving comfort and skin strength when wearing gloves. People should also use the appropriate cleansers after their hands become contaminated, as well as a restorative cream at the end of the working day – moisturising, nourishing and conditioning the skin to prevent it from becoming dry and damaged.

Professional protect and restore creams offer real benefits to workers. They can be specific to the type of work, the contaminants in each workplace, and the skin condition of the workers themselves – in addition to being fast absorbing and non-greasy.

Employers are advised to combine these steps with effective  – and regular – training on the above skin care programme, including how to spot a work-related skin problem and the steps to take after identifying one.

Whether your employees are new to the job, approaching retirement or anything in between, it is crucial for them to understand that their hands will matter now, and throughout their entire life. With the implementation of an effective specialist skin care programme, we hope that workplaces can promote the protection of skin, and that the cycle of poor skin health can be broken.

HSE advice on skin protection at: hse.gov.uk/skin

Paul Jakeway is marketing director at Deb