Protecting cleaners' hands

20th of December 2016
Protecting cleaners' hands

Paul Jakeway, marketing director at skin care and hand hygiene expert Deb explains how a fully integrated skin care programme can protect cleaning professionals from occupational skin disorders, such as dermatitis, and keep their skin healthy.

Cleaning professionals are unsung heroes in every company. Without them floors would be sticky, carpets dusty, windows streaky. The dishes would pile in the kitchen sink, rubbish bins overflow. Far from the clean and tidy environments most people are used to, workplaces would be dirty or messy, perhaps even filthy.

Most of the work that assures our workplaces are clean is unseen: cleaners begin their work when most others have finished theirs. That’s one reason, perhaps, why it’s easy not to think about the risks they are faced with on a daily basis.

Exposure to dirt and filth is inevitable. Germs and bacteria are an issue. And there’s frequent contact with both water and chemicals. All these can be a threat to the skin - with serious consequences for health and wellbeing.

Skin problems in the workplace are collectively known as occupational skin disorders. They can range from mild, short-term skin irritations to serious conditions such as occupational dermatitis, friction callosity (the skin’s reaction to friction and pressure), or infectious skin diseases (compromised skin is much more likely to absorb the pathogens that cause bacterial, viral or fungal infections).

Research leaves no doubt about the seriousness of the problem. Occupational skin disease is the second most common work-related health problem in Europe. Every year, around three million working days are lost because of it – costing the EU an estimated €600 million.

The most prevalent type of skin disorder reported in the workplace is occupational dermatitis. 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.

Cleaning operatives run a high risk of contracting skin conditions such as occupational dermatitis for two reasons: cleaning involves a lot of ‘wet work’ – activities that require repeated exposure to or immersion in water. And it exposes the skin to a wide variety of chemicals: floor and window cleaners, preservatives, ammonia, solvents, degreasers, and bleach can all act as irritants.

Preventing dermatitis

Effective prevention of occupational dermatitis requires full cooperation between everyone involved but the prime responsibility lies with the employer.Employers have a Duty of Care to assess the risks that could cause occupational dermatitis – and take the necessary preventative actions.

One of the most effective contributions to the successful prevention of occupational dermatitis in the workplace is the implementation of a structured skin care programme. Where it is not possible to protect the skin against workplace contaminants, cleaning and care of the hands is an important part of the developing a proactive, holistic stance.

Four-step skin care system

A proven four-step approach to skin care identifies four crucial moments for treatment of the skin: applying protective cream before work; using appropriate hand cleansers regularly after contamination; hand sanitising where running water is not immediately accessible; and applying restorative cream.

Protective creams are specially formulated to leave a protective layer on the surface of the skin. They 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 skin quicker and easier to clean.

Cleaning operatives need to frequently clean their own hands during their working day. It’s important to make sure the products available are effective, and supported with test data where appropriate. It’s also important they are gentle on the skin and pleasant to use. If soaps and sanitisers contain conditioners, they can help improve skin hydration and prevent drying of the skin.

Restorative products are a crucial element of any skin care programme. 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.

Different working environments have their own specific requirements, and any products should be sourced from a reputable company that offers advice and guidance on their use. The installation of specifically designed, sealed cartridge dispensers for use with soaps, skin cleaners and creams is strongly recommended.

Such dispensers provide the most hygienic skin care, 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.

Companies should also look for BioCote marked dispensers; a market leading antimicrobial technology supplier proven to achieve up to a 99.99 per cent reduction in bacteria, mould and fungi over a 24-hour period. The presence of BioCote’s logo on dispensers reassures employees and customers that excellence in hand hygiene procedures is of paramount importance.

Education crucial

But it’s not enough to put the right products in the right places. The accessibility of soaps and creams can only go so far – if a skin care programme doesn’t include a dedicated programme of education and training. Employers need to make a real effort to inform their staff about the seriousness of occupational skin disorders, and about the steps they can take to avoid being affected.

Compliance is crucial to the success of any skin care programme. To achieve this staff need to be aware of much more than the fact that skin care products are available. When should soap and water be used, when is a sanitiser more appropriate? What is the correct technique for either? What are the key moments during the day to re-apply a pre-work cream? What is the right amount of after-work cream to use?

Hands-on training sessions, instructional multimedia programmes and regular staff meetings can help to make sure that the effort to combat the threat of occupational skin disease is not just a one-off event that is quickly forgotten about.

If leaflets and brochures are made available, employees can read up on the issue whenever they have questions or concerns, while safety signs and posters are a good way to keep up awareness on a day-to-day level. Informed by expert advice, a dedicated education and training programme is the best way to achieve  ‘buy-in’ from the workforce – something that is absolutely crucial for any skin care system to work properly.

Serious consequences

Neglecting the skin care of cleaning operatives can have serious consequences for an employer. If staff are effected by occupational dermatitis or other skin issues, morale might suffer considerably, while staff absences might result in lost productivity. If news of staff being affected by occupational skin disorders spread, bad publicity is almost inevitable. In worst cases there could be compensation claims.

The costs can be significant: employers might not only have to pay the salary of the absent employee; they might also need to cover overtime incurred by those covering for the absent employee, as well as the loss of output incurred. If employees leave a company as the result of occupational skin disease, businesses are potentially faced with a host of other recruitment and employment costs.

If employers do take the issue seriously and implement a structured skin care programme that includes the right products and a dedicated programme of education and training, they are putting themselves in the best possible position to keep their employees safe and healthy – protecting those who do so much to make sure the rest of us work in clean environments.


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