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Occupational skin disorders affect one in 10 workers and can be unpleasant and painful. But they can be avoided, says Chris Brooks.

© iStock
© iStock

07 October 2019 | Chris Brooks

1 Repair or replace?

Occupational skin disorders (OSDs) are common and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work says they are the second most common work-related health problem in Europe.

Skin disorders can come in many forms, such as dermatitis or eczema. And after repeated contact with contaminants, it is possible to develop an allergic reaction to a specific substance.

Many workers say that OSDs can be demoralising and can compound the impact on wellbeing, hindering simple tasks such as making a cup of tea right up to preventing an individual carrying out their work properly. 

Correct handwashing

The top layer of the skin, just 0.03mm-0.25mm thick, forms the main barrier to contaminants. Skin is easily damaged skin and can take up to six weeks to repair. Even over-washing or using a cleanser that is too harsh for the level of soiling can have a serious effect.

To understand the issues surrounding OSDs, we researched what workers who use their hands in demanding settings wanted from their skincare. We relied on focus groups and manager interviews. 

Common challenges

  • Employees cite:
  • Stubborn dirt;
  • Lack of training;
  • Intermittent glove use; and 
  • Over-washing of hands.


But there were also complaints about products that were ineffective and not labelled clearly. Inappropriate hand cleansers were also being used. 

However, more surprisingly, one of the most important factors cited by workers was the need for a product that was kind to skin. Employees were conflicted; they needed a strong cleanser that didn’t compromise skin condition.

Managers interviewed echoed this, keen for good-quality product provision, but also for employees to be invested in choosing the correct hand cleanser. Product guidance and training was also recognised as a crucial factor.

Unique to those who work with their hands, a powerful hand cleanser is needed but this often comes at a cost to skin condition, amplifying the risk of OSDs. For those who work with heavier contaminants, a lack of effective hand cleansers means that contaminants are not thoroughly removed.

What employers can do

1 Products

Skincare decisions are often left with employees. Ensure that they are provided with appropriate products, which may mean providing various cleansers where workers have different levels of soiling. 

Make sure that workers avoid over-washing and use the mildest cleanser for the soiling being tackled. For example, for ingrained soiling such as grease and oil, a gritty cleanser would be recommended.

Protection and restoration creams should be used as part of a three-step programme. An at-work dispenser system is the clearest way to display this, with protective creams to reinforce the hands against soiling, and moisturising creams to restore the skin’s essential oils. 

2 Training

The right products are important but workplace training is also vital to guarantee good skincare guidance. Once the right products for various types of soiling are chosen, based on a site survey or audit, employees need training in use.

On-site training is preferable, covering practical aspects such as technique and types of soiling – often a ‘toolbox talk’ is the best solution.

3 Reinforcement

Following the above steps, continual reinforcement can be implemented with the use of workplace resources. Posters and reminders at relevant stations work best; for example, a protection cream station by the entrance to the site. Products should also be clearly labelled.

This Global Handwashing Day, on 15 October, make sure than your employees are well-provisioned to combat the prevalence of OSDs. 

The correct products, guidance and training are the best recommendations for keeping skincare in check, making employees’ physical health and wellbeing a top priority in the FM sector. 

Chris Brooks is technical product manager at SC Johnson Professional