Getting to grips with hand protection

Essential for the majority of work carried out in the industry, hands are the workers most valuable tool. The skin acts as the body’s front line of defence against damage and infection but needs protection itself to be able to perform efficiently.

Occupational dermatitis accounts for a large proportion of the 2.2 million people who suffer from work related illness every year. This often overlooked form of industrial disease leads to lost production, lost skills, wasted management time and increased employer’s liability insurance.

A case of irritant dermatitis

With annual compensation claims costing £235 million and around 65 per cent of all claims being made due to skin disorders, adopting good skin hygiene systems and ensuring employees have the right protection for the job can cut costs and injuries.

Occupational dermatitis is caused when the skin comes into contact with certain substances at work. How quickly workers will contract occupational dermatitis will depend upon a number of things:

the substance;

its strength or potency;

how long and how often it touches the skin; and

extremes of temperature.

Usually affecting the hands or forearms, signs of occupational dermatitis can be redness, itching, scaling and blistering. If it gets worse the skin can crack and the dermatitis can spread all over the body.

“Where occupational dermatitis is concerned, prevention really is better than cure and the employer must ensure workers are supplied with the correct levels of pre-work creams, hand cleansers and, in the case of the water industry, an anti-bacterial skin sanitiser to remove potentially harmful bacteria from the skin,” said Deb’s technical manager Liz Bowley.

“As well as providing workers with the right level and combination of products, it is important to educate and motivate the workforce to use the products. There is a wealth of educational materials dedicated to teaching staff about skincare, including videos, posters and washroom stickers which can be used in induction programmes and training sessions.

“But above all else, employers must seek expert advice to ensure they have chosen the right products for the workforce,” Ms Bowley added.

Water industry workers face an additional hazard in the form of potentially life threatening infections such as Weils Disease. The bacteria responsible for this are transmitted through contact with rat’s urine and enter the body through membranes and damaged skin.

Obviously the provision and use of appropriate protective clothing and gloves will play an important role in skin protection. It is especially important that workers understand that cuts and scratches must be covered and that the skin must be kept in healthy condition.

With water industry employees very often working in remote locations, without access to washroom facilities, the need for them to be provided with products that protect their skin away from a normal washroom environment becomes essential.

“We were concerned that mobile workers were potentially missing out on the right level of hand hygiene because they were working in a situation where they could not get to a washroom,” said Ms Bowley.

“The go-anywhere skin hygiene system performs a dual role, protecting workers’ hands by providing a hygienic, convenient way to clean hands – even when water is unavailable – and meeting legislative pressure on employers to provide adequate skin care facilities.

“It is essential that the dirt and grime picked up by the hands during the working day is cleaned off before it starts to attack the skin’s natural defences and the cradle system does exactly that while killing germs ensuring that food is the only thing eaten,” she added.

In an ideal world, hand hazards would be eradicated by control measures but as it is rarely possible to guarantee anywhere a hazard free zone, then protection and prevention must be the ultimate concern.

Gloves provide the final barrier between hazard and skin, but if the glove doesn’t fit the job or it is so unwieldy that it prevents the worker from completing a task, it can be worse than wearing no glove at all. It is therefore vital that gloves are selected correctly, taking into account:

the types of hazards involved;

the demand for glove performance, such as chemical resistance or grip;

the working conditions; and

the individual’s needs including comfort and dexterity.

“Due to the extremely wide range of hazards in the workplace, it is essential to seek specialist advice from a reputable glove manufacturer to establish the most suitable hand protection,” said Martin Ireland of Marigold Industrial.

“Hands must be protected at all times when there is a risk of damage to the skin or injury to the hand itself. It is necessary for employers and employees to become aware of the risks of not protecting hands and to work together to ensure the correct gloves are selected for the job in hand. Hand protection can only be effective if gloves are chosen properly, maintained carefully and if individuals regularly observe a certain standard of hand hygiene,” he added.

Hazards can largely be grouped into four types:

chemical – exposure to chemicals which can attack, weaken and destroy the skin both immediately and over a period of time;

mechanical – a cut, crush or general abrasion to the skin, this can include micro-injuries, barely noticeable initially but which can cause long term harm;

thermal – skin exposure to fierce heats or freezing temperatures; and

electrical – often from contact with lighting, heating and equipment used at work.

As the second largest water company in the UK covering 8,000 square miles and a population of eight million people, Severn Trent Water supplies more than 2,100 megalitres of water everyday.

“When we reviewed our use of gloves we looked at all the different working procedures that people would come across in the course of a working day and in different geographical locations. We then commissioned a glove survey to assess the situation and suggest an appropriate glove and the recommendation was a supported nitrile glove,” said Michael Miles of Severn Trent.

“The next process was to ensure that people would be happy wearing the gloves and that they were comfortable. As a result we conducted user trials involving employees, contractors and unions. Models from a variety of manufacturers were tested over a period of time and at the end the Marigold Industrial Nitrotough 650 glove was chosen,” he added.

A contractor would not work on a construction site without a hard hat or protective shoes, but they might disregard hand protection and care. Disregarding the hands, the essential tools which allow workers to perform their jobs on site, is a potential recipe for disaster.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie