Skin diseases are in the top most prevalent occupational diseases in the EU, accounting for between 10 and 40% of the total. The high incidence is particularly due to the tens of thousands of chemical products in use. These are responsible for 80-90% of skin diseases, but biological and physical agents can also be causative factors.
As well as burns and irritation, chemical exposure can result in dermatitis, occupational acne and uptake of chemicals through the skin can result in toxic effects and even cancer. Other common health effects are allergic reactions and these effects can be promoted by wet work and the use of detergents or solvents. Chemical substances and other risk factors, such as biologicals agents and sun radiation, can act together to enhance some of these health effects.
Virtually all branches of industry and commerce are affected by work-related skin diseases with health and social services, hairdressers, the food industry, the metalworking sector, the retail trade and the construction trades particularly at risk. Work involving contact with water, known as wet work, can also seriously impair the skin’s barrier function. Skin problems are also the most common problem for cleaners through exposure to cleaning products. Hotel, restaurant and catering (HORECA) sector workers are at risk when cleaning, disinfecting, and when handling food and biological waste. The risk for mobile workers, such as people working in home care or at different locations, should also be taken seriously and appropriate measures taken.
Control and prevention strategies
Employers should assess the jobs where exposure to substances that harm or can be taken up through the skin is likely, and determine whether workers may be affected by wet work, the use of solvents and detergents, sunlight or other risks.
Work processes should be adapted to eliminate the use of such substances, or if not possible, they can be substituted with less harmful substances. Technical measures such as using closed systems that avoid contact, and equipment to ensure a safe working distance between skin and substances/products/wet work can reduce exposure further, while organisational measures like job rotation can lower exposure time. As a last resort, personal protective equipment (PPE) such as appropriate gloves or skin protection products can be used. Employers should take particular care that gloves are appropriate and are not worn all the time.
And it is important to protect any exposed body parts, not only the hands. Specific measures or work clothing may be needed.
Employers are also recommended to draw up a skin protection plan which includes measures and instructions for:
skin protection before work; skin cleansing during and after work; skin care after work
taking into account: type of exposure; skin protection when wearing gloves; protection from UV radiation
Workers should also be trained on exposures, prevention techniques, proper use of personal protective devices and skin hygiene. Hand washing before eating and drinking and before wearing gloves is vital, as is changing any contaminated clothing or PPE. Workers should learn how to check their skin and know who to contact if they notice the first signs of itchy, dry or red skin, so that early measures can be taken to improve the work situation.
To monitor workers´ health in larger enterprises, employers can also use questionnaires, interviews or clinical investigations to ensure that control measures in place are effective.
In Estonia and Sweden, cleaning companies implemented new approaches to managing chemical safety. The use of cleaning agents has been limited and where possible replaced with Ultra H2O (purified water). Extensive in-service training was also introduced to ensure workers are informed on how to safely use cleaning agents and equipment.
Find out more
Much work is still needed to raise employees’ awareness of the issue, particularly as there is no scientific method to measure the level of the body’s exposure to risks via skin contact and their health impact.
A great place to start is with the short film Napo in…protect your skin! The film explains the dangers of exposing the skin to harmful (and sometimes not so harmful) substances, the situations where exposures occur, and what can be done to avoid risks, protect the skin and prevent damage.
You can discover more good practice examples on the campaign website and find out more about skin exposure to chemical substances on OSHwikiwhich has specific pages on irritants, occupational allergens and work-related skin diseases. And don’t forget to follow the Healthy Workplaces Campaign on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.