Auto Service World
Feature   October 1, 2002   by Jim Anderton

Saving your Skin

SSGM speaks with dermatologist Dr. Paul Cohen about the most critical tool owned by technicians: their hands

Dirt is an inconvenience, but automotive chemicals can do damage that’s more than skin deep. Dr. Paul Cohen is a dermatologist with Toronto’s Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre, and has treated many patients in the automotive service sector. What is the common issue around contact with automotive chemicals?

“As a dermatologist I see a lot of people in the automotive and related industries that complain of what we call ‘hand dermatitis’, says Cohen. “Their hands are very cracked, very dry, and are quite painful. Often this is due to over exposure to things like solvents, gasoline and oils. After a while these chemicals start to irritate the skin, which can become very red, rough, cracked and itchy and it becomes increasingly difficult for people to use their hands at work. It’s not uncommon for people who use these products to come in and say ‘my hands are very sore, they’re getting cracked’, and many times it’s not just the products, it’s the cleaning solution they use to get the products off their hands.”

Dr. Cohen notes that keeping the chemicals off hard working hands in the automotive industries isn’t easy given the nature of service work and the need for good “feel”.

“The problem is, I often recommend that (technicians) try to use gloves. Cotton gloves under rubber gloves are best, but it appears that many people can’t; they need to use bare hands. That’s problematic, because prevention is very important in this instance. There are over the counter hand protective creams that are quite thick. These barrier creams may help prevent the buildup of chemicals on people’s hands, but the problem is that they can be a little greasy. It might affect the type of work they do. I have machinists, mechanics and people involved in that type of industry who can develop problems with long term exposure. Prevention is best. Gloves if possible are good and protective barrier creams may help somewhat.”

Dr. Cohen also notes that for some mechanics, there may be more going on than simple irritation or dryness. “On rare occasions, people can be allergic to some components, and not just gasoline but certain chemicals that mechanics work with. If it’s a really severe reaction and it’s difficult to work, we can do allergy tests to ascertain whether or not there’s an allergy rather that an irritant.”

Dr. Cohen states that the difference between irritation and allergic reaction is most easily detected by the amount of exposure that generates a response. “An irritant is a substance that any person would expose themselves to repeatedly that would cause irritation. For people who are allergic, a little bit of exposure (would cause) their hands to become red, itchy and inflamed.”

If you can’t wear gloves, just scrub, right? Dr. Cohen suggests that attacking contaminated hands with improper cleaning agents with too much vigor can worsen the problem.

“It’s a bit of a double edged sword, because over hydration can worsen the problem with intensive hand washing and aggressive chemicals, but on the other hand, leaving these irritating substances on the hands for a prolonged periods of time also causes problems. As a rule of thumb, if gloves are not a feasible option, when washing the hands try to wash as little as needed. Obviously, at the end of the day you want to get the chemicals off as much as you can, but overexposure to water can be a problem. There are things that technicians can do at home as well, because their hands are so important to them. When they’re not at work, avoiding excess hand washing, and wearing rubber over cotton gloves when doing work around the house or gardening, will help prevent their hands from worsening. Rubber over cotton gloves are best; if people do a lot of wet work, rubber only can cause itchiness and irritation due to trapped moisture. It’s a hard problem to fix. I always say, can you wear gloves? They always tell me they can’t.” SSGM