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Occupational dermatitis: Reduce the risk

19 September 2016

Many industrial workers are exposed to skin irritants every day. Jamie Wright from Tork manufacturer SCA looks at the scale of industrial dermatitis in the UK and considers how a well-equipped washroom can help to ease this painful and debilitating condition

About 84,000 people across the UK currently suffer from a form of dermatitis that has either been caused by – or made worse by – their work. It can be triggered by substances that many of us come into contact with during a typical working day. Examples include paint, ink, detergent, disinfectant, solvents, metalworking fluids, cement and adhesives.

Occupational dermatitis can occur immediately after contact with a strong irritant, or over a longer period of time after repeated contact with weaker irritants. Common symptoms include itching and soreness.

Prolonged or frequent contact with water, particularly in combination with soaps and detergents, can also cause dermatitis. In the food and catering industries for example about 55% of dermatitis cases are caused by prolonged contact with water, soaps and detergents.

Environmental factors can also play a significant role. For example, friction from operating machinery may scrape away the skin and diminish its protection against allergens. Hot workplaces may cause sweating which will dissolve some chemical powders and increase their toxicity. And excessively dry air could cause chapping of the skin which can increase the likelihood of allergies. 

However occupational dermatitis is often avoidable, and preventing the condition is a cheaper – and more viable – option than attempting to cure it.

Reducing the risk 

There are several steps that employers can take to reduce the risk of workers contracting this debilitating condition: They can replace hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives; they can ensure that their premises are adequately ventilated, and they can take steps to automate industrial processes where possible. 

They should also promote the wearing of protective equipment such as masks, aprons and gloves. However, chemicals can permeate some gloves so it is important to select these carefully.

Wherever occupational dermatitis is a potential threat, good hand washing facilities should be supplied to thoroughly wash away any harmful substances from the skin. 

According to the Health and Safety Executive, staff should be reminded to wash away any contamination from their skin promptly and to thoroughly clean their hands before eating and drinking and before putting on gloves. Mild soaps should be provided for this task along with hot and cold water. 

The HSE says employees should be told about the importance of thorough drying after washing in order to protect the hands from painful skin conditions. And it recommends that soft disposable paper towels or textile alternatives should be supplied for this purpose.

Employees should check their hands regularly for early signs of itchy, dry or red skin. The sooner dermatitis is recognised and treated, the more likely it is that the sufferer will make a full recovery. If an employee does appear to have skin problems he/she should be encouraged to see their GP at an early stage and all health records should be kept in the workplace. 

Employees can further protect their skin by moisturising as often as possible, particularly at the end of the day, says the HSE. A good moisturiser will replace the natural oils that help keep the skin’s protective barrier working properly.

Employers have a duty under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations to prevent employees from coming into contact with substances that are hazardous to health. But many of these substances are an integral part of the workplace and are therefore difficult – if not impossible – to avoid.

By promoting the use of PPE, by encouraging good hand hygiene and by equipping washrooms and wash stations with the right tools to gently clean and dry the hands, the risks of contracting occupational dermatitis can often be greatly reduced.

Tork manufactures a range of mild soaps and soft disposable hand towels for use in the industrial washroom plus a user-friendly moisturiser to help protect the skin.