Avoiding Contact Dermatitis in the Workplace
Contact dermatitis is a skin irritation caused by exposure to irritants (irritant contact dermatitis) and allergens (allergic contact dermatitis). Common cleaners and solvents are often to blame and the condition can mean a lifetime of difficulties for the sufferer.
The condition presents in different ways depending on the concentration of the substance and the length of time the skin was exposed to it. Generally there will be redness, swelling, heat and pain on the affected skin. With repeated, prolonged or heavy exposure, skin can form blisters and sores, crusts and scales.
Irritant contact dermatitis can be caused by a wide variety of substances that come in contact with exposed skin at work, especially cleaning solvents. These irritants damage skin cells directly by overpowering the skin’s natural protective barrier.
Allergic contact dermatitis happens when skin is exposed to a “sensitiser” or allergen that causes an over-reaction of the body’s immune system. The body produces T-cells which “remember” that particular allergen. This means that after the first allergic reaction the skin becomes sensitised to that particular substance and will react very strongly from even small amounts of exposure in the future.
In the workplace most cases of contact dermatitis appear on hands and arms. Irritant and allergic contact dermatitis can occur together, which can make the condition worse and sometimes prevents the sufferer from being able to perform their usual tasks at work.
Once sensitised, a person could remain so for life which can be devastating for their job prospects within workplaces that use the same substances. For this reason, it is important to be aware of the risks involved within the workplace and to take steps to prevent contact dermatitis.
Top tips to protect skin at work.
- Always read the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) to find out if the product is a skin irritant and what PPE is required for safe handling.
- Education – Find out about common irritants and allergens, especially in cleaning products. Give workers exposed to hazardous substances information about how to use them safely.
- Substitution – Replace toxic or harmful substances with safe, low allergen alternatives when possible. There are plenty of low risk alternatives for all sorts of commonly used harsh chemicals.
- Protection – Protective clothing such as gloves and aprons can go a long way to protect skin from harmful exposure. It’s important to check manufacturer’s specifications to make sure they will stand up to the types of chemicals being used because not all fabrics resist all types of substances.
- Compliance – Make sure workplace ventilation systems, storage procedures and personal hygiene processes (such as hand washing with low irritant, mild soaps) are in place and consistently enforced.