Auto Service World
Feature   February 1, 2000   by CARS Magazine

Hurtin’ Hands

Damage caused by occupational skin diseases is more than skin deep. It's a major cause of workplace injury, absences, lost productivity and more. Here is how to reduce its impact.

In the auto service business, skin is a major asset. It makes sense to look after it and protect what amounts to the body’s largest organ.

As the body’s largest organ, skin provides a barrier to the environment.

This is particularly important for automotive technicians, not only because their hands represent a primary occupational asset, but because they are regularly exposed to such a hazardous environment in the course of day to day work.

Skin protects against harmful environmental substances, such as chemicals, bacteria and the weather.

Each square centimeter of skin contains more than six million cells and more than a meter of blood vessels.

The skin is composed of three layers: the stratum corneum/epidermis, the dermis, and the basal layer.

The outer layers of the skin, the stratum corneum/epidermis, have a maximum thickness of approximately one mm and must remain intact to adequately perform the barrier function.

A variety of workplace and other environmental factors result in damage to the skin.

Solvents remove the skin’s natural lubricants.

Such damage to the skin barrier results in dryness due to excessive water loss through the skin.

Weather is a contributing factor to skin condition. The effects of cold, low humidity, and wind may result in an exacerbation of skin disorders.

Washing hands for the removal of soils and germs is essential for healthy skin. Hand washing with heavy-duty cleaners, or frequent washing with mild skin cleansers, however, can dry the skin especially in the winter months.

To reduce dryness, a regimen of washing, followed by the use of a hand cream, which conditions, protects and restores the skin, may help.

The real cost of skin damage amounts to a billion dollars.

Skin disease accounts for nearly 40 percent of all occupational illness cases. It costs American industry $1 billion annually due to lost productivity, medical care and disability payments.

Among automotive technicians, for instance, specialization often increases the likelihood and frequency of exposure to various irritant conditions – transmission specialist, wheel alignment technician, front-end work specialist, etc.

One of every four workers is exposed to some form of skin irritant in the workplace.

Occupational dermatitis is listed on the “Top 10″ most important occupational injuries and illnesses” by NIOSH, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

Occupational dermatitis is categorized into two broad types of skin disorders. Contact dermatitis accounts for approximately 80 percent of all skin problems while allergic reactions account for approximately 20 percent.

Irritant contact dermatitis is difficult to avoid since it can arise from contact with common workplace substances.

Permanent damage manifested through a chronic skin condition

can result from repeated irritation.

Repeated contact with these substances over months or years can result in a chronic skin condition.

Allergic contact dermatitis is a delayed reaction to a substance that invokes a response by the immune system.

In Europe, the focus and concern regarding occupational dermatitis has been heightened due to the employer’s defined responsibilities to its workforce.

For example, occupational dermatitis accounted for more than half of all cases awarded Industrial Injury Benefits in Britain and more than 60 percent of successful injury claims against employers according to a report by the National Eczema Society (1989).

Not only is contact dermatitis viewed in the context of financial penalty and court settlement, but also in the context of liability insurance costs and company investments in worker recruitment, training and benefits.

Auto service technicians are liable to be exposed to 19 different categories of chemicals and irritants that threaten their skin.

Automotive service technicians potentially face exposure to 19 different categories of automotive chemicals and irritants – from antifoaming agents, antifreezes and transmission fluids, to lubricants, oils, or corrosion inhibitors.

Hand Hurting Chemicals

Antifoaming agents

Include silicones, polygycols, mineral oils, higher-molecular-weight alcohol, organic phosphates, alkyl lactates, castor oil soaps, calcium acetate.


Such as ethylene glycol (formerly methanol was used), borax, sodium nitrate, sodium hydroxide, organic fatty acids, 2-mercaptobenzothiazole.

Automotive transmission fluids

Contain mineral oils, barium and calcium soaps, antioxidants such as hydroquinone, BHT, and p-phenylenediamine derivatives, acrylic polymers, silicones, organic phosphates, dyes.

Brake fluids

Polyglycol, castor oils, soaps, borax, hydroquinone, dyes.

Brake linings

Asbestos fibers, metallic fibers – copper, aluminum, gray cast iron, iron powder, steel fibers – rubber particles, graphite, phenolic/epoxy resins, cashew-nutshell liquid).

Carburetor cleaners

Tall oil, cresol, xylene, acetone, sodium dichromate.

Cleaners and wash compounds

Soaps and detergents, various germicidal agents such as o-benzyl-p-chlorophenol.


Ethylene glycol, propylene glycol, 1,3-butylene glycol, glycerol).

Diesel fuels

Petroleum distillates or heavy hydrocarbons, N-hexyl and octyl nitrate

Ignition improver

Engine starters/boosters (diethyl ether, CO2 propellant).

Corrosion inhibitors

Same as gasoline – nonionic and anionic surfactants, polymeric amine salts).

Engine cleaners

Methylene and ethylene chloride, detergents, corrosion inhibitors, EDTA, pine oil, kerosene).


Felt, metals, asbestos, various plastics including vinylidene fluoride and hexafluoropropylene, acrylics, rubber, polyethylene with sulfur and chlorine).


High-petroleum distillates with various additives (Antiknock agents, scavengers, phosphorous additives, antioxidants, metal deactivators, surface-active agents, deposit control additives, deicing agents, dyes, octane booster – plus 43 additional subcategories)


Various petroleum fractions with additives (detergents, dispersants, corrosion inhibitors, antioxidants, viscosity-index improver, extreme-pressure additives – plus 28 additional subcategories).

Radiator flushes

Solvents, silicates, phosphates, sodium dichromate, acids, chlorinated hydrocarbons, 2-mercaptobenzothiazole.

Rain repellents

For windshields (isopropyl alcohol, sulfuric acid).


For bolts in chassis, etc. (cyanoacrylates).

Windshield cleaners

Methanol with traces of detergent and dye.


Epoxy resins, asphalt-phenolic resins, solvents, pigments.

Source: Robert M. Adams, M.D., Occupational Skin Diseases, W.B. Saunders Co., New York, 1990.

Skin Care Options

A good skin care regimen consists of using the mildest hand cleaner possible. Here are some more tips to reduce skin damage in day to day work.

Contact dermatitis, the most common type of skin condition, can be prevented only through limiting – or eliminating – contact with the irritant or allergen.

Using a system of hand treatment, thorough cleaning, and conditioning products may lessen it.

Barrier creams have been used in the workplace for a number of years.

Some complaints of barrier cream include heaviness or slipperiness.

Workers who use hand tools or hand-driven equipment often complain that a barrier cream inhibits their ability to perform their work safely.

Gloves also may be used in the workplace as a means of limiting dermatitis.

Some workers are not prone to use gloves because the product limits dexterity and the effectiveness of performing.

Cleansers/soaps that are waterless (i.e. can be used without water) are in two forms: creams/gels and lotions.

Wipes are relatively new to the industrial workplace.

Most impregnated with skin cleansers, traditional formulation of products in this category enables them to be used without soap and water.

A good skin care regimen consis
ts of using the mildest hand cleaner possible for your soiling conditions, which will effectively clean hands in 30 seconds, and using an antiseptic skin treatment before beginning work, after each hand wash, and at home before bed.

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