Skin Is Handy, So Protect It
By Susen Trail | 05/07/2020
Depending on who you ask, or which website you read, (I agree with the CDC) skin is the largest organ on the body. Skin comprises 10% of body mass, usually weighing in at about 8 pounds, and has an area the size of the average house doorway. Skin is the body’s first line of defense against chemical and biological intrusion as well as physical (sharp edges, etc.) and mechanical (caught in or between) hazards.
Skin has other functions such as using UV light to synthesize vitamin D through photolysis. But I find the most amazing thing about skin are the two ways it regulates your body temperature:
- Have you ever noticed that when you are hot you can see more blood vessels under your skin? This is because your body increases blood flow to the vessels directly under the skin transferring heat from the internal organs to the cooler external parts of the body. This only works when the air temperature is less than 100°F.
- Have you noticed that when your internal body temperature rises, either by a hot atmosphere or through hard work, you sweat? That is a cooling mechanism. When matter, water, moves from one state, liquid, to a higher state, vapor, it requires an energy source, heat.
- A droplet of sweat requires energy to evaporate into a higher energy form: vapor
- That energy is the heat on your skin
- After taking that energy from your hot skin it leaves the skin under the former droplet cooler than it was.
This is why people prefer dry heat to humid heat, it’s harder for sweat to evaporate when the air already has a lot of moisture in it.
Skin is resistant to many chemicals, keeping them from absorbing into your body unnoticed to be transported by the blood to the Target Organ, such as your Central Nervous System or Kidneys. Once a chemical reaches the target organ it can cause illnesses ranging from dizziness to death. But, such protection the skin can provide is terminated if there are cracks, fissures, or cuts where chemicals can slip through and enter the blood stream.
Many things can harm your skin and one of them is excessive washing of the hands or overuse of alcohol sterilizing solutions which will remove the natural oils on the skin that keeps it supple (also called defatting the skin.) As we leave our homes, we will be touching many more objects other people have touched.
As your employees are, finally, returning to work their hands are likely to be already chapped and less defended against chemical hazards in your workplace. Because even chemicals not labeled as capable of being absorbed through the skin may use that route of entry all of the chemicals in your workplace are now at a higher hazard level. So, some Job Safety (or Hazard) Analysis should be revisited for tasks including chemical exposures.
Here are some methods to protect your employees:
- Engineering controls
- Remove a chemical or swap it out for a low hazard chemical
- Automate tasks that currently require employees to touch surfaces of products, buttons, or machinery that have hazardous chemicals on their surface.
- Replace or enclose operations where chemicals are applied as a spray or mist.
- Add a rinse cycle to remove the chemical (but check this against EPA and local liquid waste regulations.
- Provide protective hand cream for employees to use after washing their hands. There are also barrier hand creams that are specific to certain chemicals.
- Administrative controls
- Assess chemical hazards under the new conditions as required by 1910.132(d)(1).
- Training employees about how fragile the skin can be as a defense
- Training employees to pat their hands and leaving them a little damp before applying a protective or barrier cream, this will seal in some moisture the same way as the natural oils would usually did.
- Personal Protective Equipment
- Select gloves that will protect employee hands from exposure to liquids or mists of chemicals as required by 1910.138(a).
- Train employees as required by 1910.132(f)(1)
- Provide and enforce the use of PPE and follow the other requirements of 1910.132.
If you think that I’m blowing things out of proportion just do one thing for me: squirt lemon juice on the back of your hand, around your fingernails, and on the front of your hand. Here’s a link to a series of articles, including an in depth evaluation of skin hazards.