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Work-related contact dermatitis

What is dermatitis?

Dermatitis is an inflammatory condition of the skin. Typical signs of dermatitis are dryness, itching, redness, swelling, blistering, cracking, flaking and bleeding. In severe cases nails can be affected.

Symptoms can vary in severity but dermatitis is not infectious so it cannot be passed from one person to another.

There are two types of contact dermatitis: irritant contact dermatitis & allergic contact dermatitis.

Irritant contact dermatitis can flare up after a few contacts with strong chemicals like bleach. More commonly it develops gradually through frequent wet working or working with milder chemicals like shampoo.

Allergic contact dermatitis can develop quickly after only a few contacts with a substance like shampoos or colours. Sometimes it can take months or even years for the allergy to develop. Once you are allergic, you are allergic for life and this could happen at any time, even if you have had no problems previously in your career.

With allergic contact dermatitis, the things you can become allergic to at work might well also be in things you use at home - like your shampoo, or your household cleaners. So if you become allergic to something due to work, it could well affect all aspects of your life.

How does exposure happen?

A causative agent may come into contact with the skin in the following ways:

  • Immersing hands in chemicals and water (e.g. washing or shampooing hair with bare hands);

  • Direct Handling of contaminated workpieces (e.g. handling workpieces contaminated with metal working fluid) or cloths soaked in cleaning chemical;

  • Touching contaminated surfaces such as work benches, tools, clothing and container;

  • Splashing (e.g. when liquid or powdery chemicals are mixed or handle;

  • Deposition from the air (e.g. when sanding epoxy coated nails or floors);

  • Work related dermatitis is made worse as a consequence of workplace exposure to physical, chemical (including wet work) or biological agents;

  • Wet work means work that involves hands being wet for significant periods during the day as a guide more than two hours a day or about twenty to forty hand washes a day.

Dermatitis complaints or reports require attention and employers have a legal duty to report cases of work-related dermatitis under RIDDOR (Reporting injuries diseases and dangerous occurrences regulations 1995)

Simple control measures

  • Wear single use gloves (Vinyl or nitrile types with smooth surface and 300mm sleeve are suitable) when using hairdressing products (e.g. Shampoo’s, bleach, dyes) and for work with hands in water;

  • Moisturise – Apply a barrier hand cream before starting work and each time you wash your hands. Allowing skin to dry up can lead to dermatitis;

  • Dry your hands thoroughly after washing using a soft cotton towel or paper towel;

  • Throw away ‘single use’ gloves every time you take them off;

  • Check your skin regularly for any signs of dryness and cracking which are early signs of dermatitis and if necessary seek medical advice.
  • Substitute a more hazardous material with a safer alternative.

What does the law require?

Employers are required to adequately control exposure to materials in the workplace that cause ill health such as dermatitis. Employers and employees need to comply with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (as amended) (COSHH). These Regulations require employers to assess risks, provide adequate control measures, ensure the use and maintenance of the control measures, provide information, instruction and training, and in appropriate cases, health sureveillance.

You can obtain general advice and guidance from Public Protection or alternatively you can visit www.hse.gov.uk for more information.

Last Updated: 10/10/2013
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