A helping hand

10 October 2019

Physical and mental health can be connected, and Chris Brooks looks at the importance of self-care and looking after your skin is a step in the right direction for workers.

FOR MANY manual or maintenance workers, physical health is often more closely monitored when it comes to health and safety. Mental health and wellbeing are not topics that are commonly discussed in this sector, but they are, however, important issues that should be taken seriously by both employers and employees. Despite general conversations around mental wellbeing becoming more widespread in recent times – Google searches for ‘mental health’ hit an all-time high in October last year – and it seems the issues are still not a main focus for manual workers and health and safety professionals in some industries.

The conversation is so important for this sector. Poor mental health has become a real issue with factors such as job insecurity, isolation, demanding hours and a poor work-life balance all identified as potentially contributing to poor wellbeing. An example of how serious the impact of poor wellbeing has been can be seen in the construction sector. It was reported last year that the risk of suicide is 1.6 times higher than the UK average for those in this sector, according to the Office of National Statistics. According to the Guardian, sick leave amongst manual workers is higher than ever, but the most common reason is poor mental health.

The role of health, safety and wellbeing professionals comes in where people find it more difficult to speak out, in older generations for example. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the use of routine management skills, a sensitive and supportive approach and speaking out at an early stage are effective ways to support employees.

When it comes to self-care, however, simple changes and approaches can make huge differences. SC Johnson Professional recently interviewed manual workers with personal experience of occupational skin disorders (OSDs), as part of their ‘Speaking Out’ campaign. 65-year-old printer Geoff explained how one simple change could make a huge impact on his mental health, “It was so severe that I couldn’t grip. Not being able to make a cup of tea. Not being able to use a knife and fork properly. All these things affect the mental state of someone.”

Perhaps a familiar sight for manual or maintenance workers – sore, cracked, itchy or swollen hands. Just a few of the symptoms of OSDs. Continued contact with unpleasant contaminants and irritants, the use of disposable gloves and tough work in damp or outdoor conditions mean that skin disorders can be particularly common.

According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, OSDs are the second most-common work-related health problem in Europe. They tend to go unreported in most cases, despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention claim that a 4 in 10 workers will experience a skin disorder during their working life. Frequent handwashing (up to 10 times a day in some instances) with heavy duty products or inappropriate formulations can lead to occupational skin disorders that can, according to the latest research in Contact Dermatitis, cost employers £6,000 per case reported. A very serious, but often unseen issue that can impact both the individual, physically and mentally, but also the success and efficiency of a business as a whole. In a worst-case scenario, a serious skin disorder could even necessitate a change of career.

Geoff added, “it affects you mentally. It’s very demoralising”. It goes without saying that physical and mental health are connected for these workers.

In their series of interviews with manual workers on this topic, SC Johnson Professional found that more information about skin care was needed. Jason, a 41-year-old labourer said: ‘There’s a lot more that could be done. There’s not a lot of information out there.’

Lee, a 27-year-old labourer also said, “The tighter you grip, that tends to be when the most pain comes. I definitely wouldn’t want my children to have the same type of hands as my father’s got. If you haven’t looked after your hands, you just dread the day.”

Exemplifying how poor skin condition can affect work rate, 54-year-old packaging warehouse worker Michael commented, “If your hands are sore it does affect your grip on a box – you try to hold it in a different way, where you won’t feel any pain.

“If you have infections on your hand you have to be very careful – you can’t give a baby a dummy.”

Working conditions

While skin care may initially seem like a relatively minor issue when it comes to mental health and wellbeing, it is clear that small but regular improvements and changes on skin condition can have significant impacts – health and safety professionals are in the best place to advise on this. As Jason said, more information is needed when it comes to good quality skin care, and Lee added, “it’s not until later in life, that you find out that these things can actually be pretty detrimental.”

These employees face a unique skin care challenge, therefore skin care can in turn be a complicated issue. Working conditions and job roles mean they’re exposed to a wide range of dirt levels – from general dirt and dust at the lighter end, right through to heavier contaminants such as oil and grease. Carrying out further research, SC Johnson Professional set out to gain an insight into companies’ and employees’ needs, leading to some surprising results. This time, the company surveyed insight groups across five sites in the UK and further sites in Germany, including a Sheffield paint manufacturing site, employees at distribution centres, as well as a broad range of focus groups and manager interviews.

The challenges faced in the workplace were unsurprising. As explained above, common challenges in the workplace included stubborn dirt, intermittent glove use, a lack of skin care training and excessive handwashing. When it came to product, many employees claimed that dispensers were unclear, multiple shots of product were needed for an effective clean and that they often dried out the skin. These challenges therefore led to a compromise between a powerful clean and a product which was kind to skin.

However, some of the user feedback was unexpected. Employees surveyed stated that they would specifically like to see a cleaner that was kind to skin and left it feeling moisturised. This needed to be stronger than general soap – but also to care for skin. Managers reiterated this, keen for their employees to invest in their skin care, showing an understanding of the need to offer good skin care as a way of promoting a caring working environment and employee wellbeing. 

For manual workers, their needs are unique in that a powerful clean is required, whilst also managing the prevalence of OSDs – overly harsh hand cleaners can exacerbate this problem. However, workers simply do not have to accept the harsh nature of heavy-duty products as a necessary evil.

The research showed that employees were looking for a caring aspect to their skin care – it is clear that skin condition was seen as something to be looked after, linking skin care to their overall wellbeing. For managers too, they were aware of this need and were invested in their employees taking care of their skin with appropriate products.

So how can health and safety professionals support good skin care and wellbeing in the workplace? When it comes to making changes around skin care specifically, a three-step approach is recommended.

  • Before work, a good protection cream should be applied. This will help prevent contaminants penetrating the deeper layers of the skin and also make the skin easier to clean. Some creams help to strengthen the upper layer of the skin meaning that a gentler hand cleaner can be used after a shift. 

  • During work, hands should be washed after contamination. Employees should be encouraged to consider what kind of soiling they are cleaning. They may be using a cleaner that is too weak or strong – both of which can lead to skin issues. They should aim for the mildest cleaner that will still do the job, as this will help avoid loss of the skin’s natural oils.

  • After work or at the end of a shift, a restoration cream should be applied. This effectively hydrates dry, cracked or stressed skin and helps replenish any moisture lost during the day. 

Health and safety professionals can promote the above steps through onsite training and audits, the provision of quality products and continued reinforcement through resources such as posters, guides and point of use signage.

This sector comes with many specific challenges in terms of skin care, so listening to worker and manager needs is vital for health and safety professionals. After years of research and customer insight, SC Johnson Professional was able to identify the problem of OSDs and their link to mental health. Furthering this research, they discovered that employees themselves were keen to improve their skin health through investment in quality, caring products, showing an increased awareness of good skin care and its link to positive mental wellbeing.

Chris Brooks is technical product manager at SC Johnson Professional, For more information, visit