Skin anywhere on the body may be affected by work-related dermatitis, but it most commonly affects the hands, as these are the parts of the body that come into contact with chemicals most frequently.
It is difficult to predict who will develop dermatitis. In the case of contact dermatitis caused by removal of natural oils from the skin, anyone may be susceptible. High standards of personal hygiene are important, so workers who fail to wash their hands after working with solvents, for example, may be more likely to develop the condition.
In the case of allergic dermatitis (sensitation of the skin to particular chemicals such as cement), anyone may develop it, even if they have never had an allergic reaction previously. However, some doctors believe that people who are more prone to allergic reactions, such as those with existing cases of eczema, may be more susceptible to occupational dermatitis.
Controls can be used to prevent the skin from coming into contact with the chemical, or reduce the number of workers involved, for example:
- by eliminating sensitizing substances from the workplace, where possible. An example would be by switching to water-based paints rather than solvent-based ones;
- using mechanical methods for applying paint, or purchase solvents in smaller containers to avoid the need for decanting;
- restricting access to processes or work in areas that may lead to exposure;
- provision of adequate washing facilities and encouraging workers to wash thoroughly after contact with sensitizing chemicals;
- provision of suitable information, instruction and training to anyone who may be exposed to an agent that causes dermatitis, so that they are aware of the risks, know how to use the control measures and can spot the symptoms;
- supervision of workers to check that they are following the information, instruction and training they have been given;
- ensure that suitable skin care or barrier cream products are available to workers; and
- protective gloves are only used as a last resort if other methods of control do not provide effective protection;
- regular health surveillance provided to address ‘catch’ symptoms before they escalate.
The most important principles in the prevention of dermatitis are limitation of contact with irritant substances and the observance of scrupulous cleanliness.
If you work with an irritant and substance capable of causing dermatitis, the following simple rules should be observed:
- avoid soiling the skin and make full use of the gloves, overalls or other means of protection provided;
- seek first-aid treatment for all cuts and abrasions, however slight, and see that the injury is protected at work by a dressing;
- when using synthetic resins, do not allow the resin to harden on the skin: remove it immediately with a damp swab;
- whenever you stop work, wash the hands and face and an other exposed area of skin carefully with soap and water and rinse and dry the skin thoroughly. This is particularly important at meal times and at the end of the day;
- do not use abrasives to clean the skin. If you need to use a solvent, see that you remove it thoroughly with soap and water and rinse the skin with clean water;
- look after your working clothes. Remember that clothing soaked with, for example, oil, can cause skin irritation or prolong it;
- report any sign of skin trouble at once and see a doctor. Any delay is likely to prolong the attack and may increase the risk of recurrence.
What is a skin management programme?
A skin management programme requires a structured objective approach to making the workplace inherently safe for the skin. Occupational skin management is the process by which employers ensure that employees do not suffer ill health as a result of dermal exposure. It involves skin care and the provision of personal protective equipment, suitable design of the workplace, risk assessment, risk management and skin health surveillance.
Skin management is therefore the process of structuring the workplace equipment and work done, so as to minimise any risk of skin exposure causing damage to health.
An occupational skin management system comprises of a variety of elements including:
- a skin management policy;
- risk assessment (including hazard characterisation);
- risk management (using engineering controls and PPE);
- personal hygiene or skin care;
- skin health surveillance;
- education; and
- auditing and monitoring.