CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio-Question: What is the body's largest organ? Answer: The skin. But in the harsh environs of an auto service shop, that skin is under constant attack by a barrage of chemicals and substances bent on making it crawl. Add in routine nicks and cuts from a slipped wrench or sharp object, and it's a wonder service technicians have any skin left on their knuckles.
After a short stint in a service bay, they'd likely qualify as poster boys for a dermatology case study.
In a way, a group of techs in the Akron area were just that.
Earlier this year, Gojo Industries Inc.-which first developed a ``waterless'' heavy-duty hand cleaner for automotive mechanics back in 1946-gathered a group of 65 techs for a six-week research project preceding its upcoming launch of a new skin care product aimed at the auto service industry.
The firm, based just outside Akron in Cuyahoga Falls, wants to be known as more than just a ``soap maker.'' It markets, in 46 countries worldwide, products for the automotive, institutional, health care and industrial segments.
Groups of technicians in the study washed with heavy-duty hand cleaner; some used different formulations of Gojo's new skin care hand lotion product while others used no lotion. Then at intervals, they reported whether their skin condition was better than normal, normal, or worse.
They also evaluated the product through a detailed questionnaire that included ratings on product attributes such as appearance, rub-in speed, wetness during application, odor, irritation and overall acceptability/likability.
Gojo used special instrumentation on the techs to determine such factors as water loss through the skin, skin barrier damage, moisture content and overall skin condition. It called the extensive testing and bioengineering ``a dermatological industry first.''
At a recent day-long ``Skin Care Conference'' for trade journalists at the company's headquarters and manufacturing plant, Gojo cited a number of government statistics and scientific data to back up its contention that mechanics need to take better care of their skin-particularly their hands.
Skin disease accounts for nearly 40 percent of all occupational illness cases, costing American industry $1 billion annually due to lost productivity, medical care and disability payments, according to 1990 U.S. Department of Labor data.
Gojo claims auto repair shops can save up to 30 minutes of productivity time by mechanics not having to wash their hands so often.
The book Prevention of Contact Dermatitis states one of every four workers is exposed to some form of skin irritant in the workplace.
And based on data in another book, Occupational Skin Diseases by Dr. Robert M. Adams, Gojo maintains that technicians who specialize in such areas as transmission repair, wheel alignment etc., face the likelihood and frequency of increased exposure to various irritant conditions.
It listed 19 different categories of chemicals and irritants that include antifoaming agents; antifreezes; transmission and brake fluids; brake linings and gaskets; carburetor cleaners; deicers; various fuels, additives, lubricants, sealants and undercoatings.
Experts point out that repeated contact with these substances over months or years can result in a chronic skin condition.
Gojo executives said the company has been ``very successful at launching hand washing regimens'' for doctors, nurses, restaurant employees, food processing plant employees and some manufacturing plant personnel.
``But until now, we have not done enough for the millions of dirty hand employees at work today...,'' the company said in a press release. ``We thought that it was time to develop a complete skin care system for the heavy-duty user.
``To make sure that we got it right, we went to the automotive market...because this group has consistently demonstrated the most difficult cleaning and hand care problems in the country.''
Studies conducted by Gojo revealed that mechanics develop dry skin for two reasons: They wash their hands from eight to a dozen times per day, and often use aggressive, harsh cleaners that are designed to remove grease, grime and oil products quickly.
It contends techs don't like wasting a lot of time cleaning up every day. Thus, aggressive cleaners, combined with the high use rate, frequently damaged skin severely.
Dr. Eleanor J. Fendler, a research scientist with Gojo, said that while some longtime technicians may consider their rough hands a ``macho badge of courage-these are my `mechanic's hands'-younger mechanics have less acceptance of greasy, grimy, grit-under-the-nails hands.
``They want to look nice when they go out with a girl, so they'll try anything to get their hands clean. Or they'll hide them.''
The company recommends technicians use a two-part hand care regimen: use of one of its array of cleaning products, of course, in conjunction with its new ``Professional Formula Gojo' Hand Medic Antiseptic Skin Treatment.'' It claimed that after using the product, 73 percent of its tech test group reported improved skin.
Gojo plans to launch the product at the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week shows in Las Vegas, Nov. 5-8, followed by a national marketing campaign aimed at the automotive sector.
While one obvious purpose of its recent hand care seminar was to promote its new product, W.H. ``Chip'' Houghton, vice president and general manager, automotive division, said Gojo hopes its conference will become an annual forum that will enable it to focus and offer training on ``the impor-tance of skin care, the distinct needs of each industry segment, and the range of viable solutions available to the worker today.''
To show its seriousness about the subject, the conference fea-tured a presentation by Dr. Howard I. Maibach, professor and vice chair at the University of California Department of Dermatology, who works closely with Gojo as a dermatological consultant.
He noted that in Sweden, where skin care is taken more seriously, the country has 25 state-sponsored occupational dermatologists who concentrate on worker-related skin conditions; the U.S. has none.
``We need to educate everyone in industry about the importance of skin care,'' Dr. Maibach said, ``from the CEO to the janitor in the company.''
See Gojo Industries' hand-washing do's and don'ts on page 7.