Dealing with work- related Contact Dermatitis

Earlier this year we explained that the Health and Safety Executive was specifically targeting users of asthmagens and carcinogens. In this brief article we consider dermatitis, another work related health issue that authorities consider to be of high priority and outline measures which will control the hazard and the risks; measures that our BusinessSafe consultants guide our Business Safety clients to take. Contact dermatitis is the most common type of occupational skin disease. An inflammation of the skin, it results from exposure to detergents, toiletries, chemicals, some natural products (e.g. sugar and flour) and even prolonged or frequent contact with water. There are two types of occupational contact dermatitis, irritant contact and allergic contact, which can affect any part of the body, but mainly hands and forearms. Irritant contact dermatitis is caused by things that dry out and damage the skin, such as detergents, solvents, oils and prolonged or frequent contact with water. Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when a person develops an allergy to something that comes into contact with their skin. The allergic reaction can appear over hours or days, or even months. Common causes include chemicals in cement, some hair products, epoxy resins and some foods. Usually dry, red and itchy skin is the first sign of dermatitis. Flaking, blistering, crusting, cracking, swelling and pain can follow. Sometimes the consequences of contact with a material or substance are immediately visible; sometimes they surface over time. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security, as the effects can be cumulative. A third type of allergy is Urticaria which occurs within minutes of the material touching the skin. Common causes are certain plants, foods and natural rubber latex gloves. Urticaria typically shows as a wheal (swelling) and flare (redness) reaction, much like nettle rash. Jobs most at risk of contact dermatitis and urticaria Workers in health care, hairdressing, the beauty industry, printing, cleaning, catering, construction and metalworking are at greatest risk; but contact dermatitis and urticaria can occur in just about any workplace. Statutory duties Employers are required to prevent or, where this is not possible, adequately control exposure to materials in the workplace that cause ill health like dermatitis. They must:
  • Identify the hazards and assess the risks;
  • Provide adequate control measures – and ensure they are used and maintained;
  • Provide information, instruction and training; and
  • Provide health surveillance, it is appropriate in most cases.
Prevention As with most hazardous substances the approach to controlling work-related contact dermatitis should follow the principle of avoid, protect and check. Wherever possible avoid contact with the harmful substance by:
  • Substitution. Replace a hazardous material with a safer alternative;
  • Automate the process, so no-one has to touch the substance(s);
  • Enclose the process as much as possible;
  • Use mechanical handling;
  • Use equipment for handling – don’t use your hands as tools;
  • Keep a safe working distance.
If you cannot avoid using the substance because there are no suitable alternatives or the process, in which they are used cannot be automated so you can fully avoid contact, you should:
  • Provide appropriate and suitable protective clothing or gloves;
  • Make sure the clothing or gloves are used and stored correctly, and replaced when necessary;
  • Train your workforce in the hazards and risks, what you are doing to control them and what they have to do;
  • Tell them not to delay in washing any contamination from their skin;
  • Tell them to dry their hands thoroughly after washing and cleaning;
  • Make arrangements for the disposal of used or unwanted product and any contaminated materials;
  • Supply moisturising pre-work and after-work creams.
Whenever employees are exposed to a residual risk of harm and you have done all you can to control exposure, regular skin checks should be carried out to look for early signs of dermatitis. Checks will be needed in each of the high risk areas listed above but may also be needed elsewhere. These checks will:
  • Help you to see if the preventative measures are working; and
  • Early detection will prompt early action to prevent the development of more serious dermatitis.
Can Peninsula help? Peninsula’s BusinessSafe clients will have access to more detailed information of the legal requirements and what they must do to comply. Our consultants will explain details and offer advice at their routine visits. Our Health Assured team of occupational health professionals are here to offer detailed guidance and arrange routine surveillance of your workforce. Clients are also able to discuss immediate issues and concerns as they arise, at any time, by calling one of our qualified consultants on our BusinessSafe 24 Hour Advice Service on 0844 892 2785.  

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