Machinists come in contact with a variety of skin irritants on a daily basis. Hard-working hands are routinely exposed to harsh chemicals and mechanical irritants as well as extreme environmental conditions that come with the job. It’s exposure to these elements that can result in occupational skin disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 13 million U.S. workers are potentially exposed to chemicals and other irritants that absorb through the skin. These agents can cause a variety of occupational skin diseases, including contact dermatitis and system toxicity.
Contact dermatitis is skin inflammation that results from exposure to irritants or allergens. The condition can vary from slight reddening and itching to irritating rashes and weeping sores. The disease costs employers billions of dollars each year. It often requires ongoing medical care that alone costs more than $1.4 billion as well as another $500 million in productivity losses, according to a 2005 study by the Lewin Group for The Society for Investigative Dermatology and The Academy of Dermatology Association.
The National Occupational Research Agenda reported that once workers acquire contact dermatitis, it is estimated that 75 percent of the cases become chronic, requiring ongoing medical care and affecting workers’ well being.
So it’s important for machinists to take proper care of their skin by reducing exposure to common irritants, using products designed to clean and condition tough-soiled hands and following a healthy skin washing and skin care regimen. With these critical steps in place, workers will have healthier and more comfortable hands, which leads to a better quality of life and improved on-the-job productivity.
Be Alert to Common Hazards
The first line of defense is to become more aware of the hazards that workers encounter. There are four main skin irritants found in harsh work environments like machine shops.
Chemical Irritants —This includes metalworking fluids, lubricants, oils, greases, solvents, paints, fiberglass, acids and even poorly formulated hand cleansers that include surfactants.
Mechanical Abrasion — Machining, milling, sanding, and grinding generate metal chips that are particularly rough on the fingertips and tend to abrade the skin, causing irritation.
Physical Agents —Repeated exposure to heat, cold, water and friction can really take a toll on the skin.
Biological and Microbiological Agents —This is the transmission by hand of germs that may cause illness.
Selecting the Right Hand-Cleaning Products
When dealing with tough soils every day, machinists need to use hand cleaners and conditioners made for the grease and grit they encounter on the job. Quality hand-cleaning products are the main protection against skin dehydration and potential infection.
Choose a hand cleaner that is formulated to easily remove heavy dirt, grease and oil and is pH balanced to promote skin health. Leading products for metal-working environments include cream and gel formulas with pumice scrubbers that work to balance cleaning performance with skin conditioning for hands to feel clean and refreshed after washing with minimal wash time and mechanical friction required.
It’s also best to choose a hand cleaner that is free of volatile organic compounds and nonylphenol ethoxylates(NPEs), since these ingredients can be a regulatory and sustainability concern, as well as contribute to stripping the skin of its natural moisture and cause irritation.
If proper hand-cleaning products aren’t readily available, workers tend to develop unhealthy habits. One of these is the habit of washing with typical bathroom lotion soaps that can’t fully remove contaminants without extended wash times or use of mechanical aids like brushes. Using these everyday soaps can contribute to dry irritated skin that develops usually from over-scrubbing.
Another extremely bad habit is using gas, kerosene, turpentine, acetone or benzene to clean hands. These chemicals should be strictly avoided since they will strip skin of the lipids and natural moisturizers and can cause chronic skin damage that affects how the skin is formed. Dry, damaged skin that has been stripped of its natural oils and moisture becomes susceptible to contact dermatitis and contaminants entering the blood stream. Damaged skin also is more likely to react to irritants than skin that is kept in good condition.
Proper washing and moisturizing of the skin helps maintain good skin condition, which helps prevent contact dermatitis and other painful conditions. To encourage healthy habits, workers should have convenient access to hand cleaners formulated for tough soils.
Employers should provide the gentlest hand cleaner that is effective for removing heavy-duty grease and grime quickly, easily, and completely. GOJO® Cherry Gel Pumice Hand Cleaner is specially formulated for the tough soils in shops, yet is relatively mild on skin.
Don’t overlook the need to keep hand cleaner dispensers in good working condition and full of hand cleaner, with refills readily available to make it easy for employees to follow proper hand-washing protocols. There are dispensers on the market that use sealed refills to prevent the contamination of the cleanser and also offer portion-control dispensing so excess product isn’t wasted by getting washed down the sink.
Machinists should also get in the habit of washing their hands at regular intervals. Cleaning hands regularly during the day with extra attention paid to lunch breaks and when leaving at the end of the day will improve skin health and help cut down on workplace absences.
Another important step is adding a formulated lotion to your hand-care routine. Choose a hand lotion or conditioner like GOJO® Hand Medic that is specially formulated to help workers in harsh environments recover from the abuse their hands take each day and still fit within their normal work flow (i.e. quickly absorbing, not too greasy.) It’s best to apply a moisturizer at least three times a day when there is time for it to fully absorb. Applying the product before work, during lunch or an extended break, and before bed will go a long way toward helping the skin maintain a healthy barrier to workplace toxins and infections.
It should be noted that moisturizers are not an effective barrier to contaminants like solvents, oil and grease. It’s still a good idea to wear gloves when coming into contact with these substances.
To reinforce healthy hand-washing habits, employers can take advantage of informational materials provided by suppliers that serve to remind employees how to maintain healthy hands. Some manufacturers provide informative videos, posters and other materials for the workplace that serve to reinforce good hand-washing habits with workers. Daily exposure to htis information can help to develop a healthier workplace culture.
In the end, keeping machinists’ hands in top working condition comes down to a few critical steps: Be aware of what causes the damage and take precaution to minimize exposure; use proper hand-cleansing products; and practice healthy skin care methods. Observing these practices, machinists can maintain healthy hands and enjoy more confidence on and off the job.
James W. Arbogast, Ph.D., is vice president of Skin Care Science & Product Development for GOJO Industries Inc. GOJO develops and supplies skin health and hygiene solutions for away-from-home settings, with products for hand cleaning, handwashing, hand sanitizingandskin care. GOJO also is known for its dispensing technology.