Occupational Dermatitis: What do Employers Need to Know?

15th January 2020

Updated June 2023

Every year around 7,000 people self-report skin problems that are caused or made worse by work (according to the Labour Force Survey). And research by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) shows that dermatitis accounts for a whole 86% of all occupational skin diseases.

This means contact dermatitis is a serious issue for employers and employees. Luckily, the chances of occupational skin diseases like contact dermatitis occurring can be reduced with careful precautions.

In this post, we’ll explore exactly what workplace dermatitis is, including its causes and symptoms. We’ll also look at ways you can prevent your staff from suffering and what your responsibilities are as an employer.

What are the symptoms of workplace dermatitis?

Dermatitis is inflammation of the skin, so the main symptoms are dry, cracked, and itchy skin. It can also cause visible redness and swelling as well as a burning sensation. Severe cases can even weep or bleed.

At its worst, dermatitis is incredibly painful – even debilitating. This makes it important to catch early, while symptoms are mild.

Unfortunately, people often dismiss mild symptoms as an ‘irritation’ and simply ignore it. But if they continue to be exposed to whatever chemical or process is causing it, it will get worse. Prolonged exposure or suffering can scar or do long-term skin damage.

The symptoms of dermatitis and eczema are universal, so the only way to diagnose an occupational skin disease is by looking at the most likely cause. If your workplace exposes you to irritants and you develop contact dermatitis, it is classed as an occupational skin disease.

What are the different types of occupational dermatitis?

When it comes to work-related dermatitis there are two types: irritant contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis.

The symptoms are basically the same across both types. They can both vary in severity too. The main difference between the two is the cause.

Irritant Contact Dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common type of occupational skin disease. In fact, around 80% of contact dermatitis is labelled as ‘irritant dermatitis’. It occurs when the skin is injured in some way – often by friction or exposure to cold, water, or harmful chemicals.

With contact irritant dermatitis, the area of skin is being damaged faster than it can repair itself. Inflammation occurs quickly after direct contact with the irritant happens.

The most common ‘irritants’ that cause workplace contact dermatitis are:

  • Acids and alkalis
  • Adhesives
  • Detergents
  • Friction; and
  • Water

Allergic Contact Dermatitis

As its name suggests, allergic dermatitis is actually a form of allergic reaction. When you are exposed to a certain substance, it triggers an inflammatory reaction in your body that shows up as skin irritation.

While this is often caused by skin exposure, it can also happen as a result of ingesting an allergy trigger – though this is unlikely to be down to workplace exposure.

The most common triggers for allergic dermatitis are:

  • Cosmetics
  • Glue
  • Metals; and
  • Rubber

High-Risk Industries for Occupational Dermatitis

Some industries and jobs have a higher risk for occupational skin diseases than others. They usually involve a lot of exposure to potential irritants, such as harsh chemicals, cold or even frequent hand washing.

The most at-risk industries are:

  • Catering
  • Construction
  • Dentistry
  • Hairdressing
  • Health services
  • Metal machining
  • Motor vehicle repair; and
  • Printing

What chemicals cause dermatitis?

Don’t be fooled into thinking that only harsh or abrasive chemicals can cause dermatitis. In fact, prolonged or frequent skin contact with ‘safe’ substances such as soap or sanitiser can damage the skin barrier and lead to skin disorders.

If your employees need to wash their hands regularly, it’s important that you do what you can to reduce the frequency or offer protections such as personal protective equipment.

How do you control occupational dermatitis?

As with many workplace health risks, it can be impossible to completely erase the risk of contact dermatitis. However, there are a lot of steps you can take to help reduce it.

For example:

  • Using alternative equipment (rather than hands wherever possible)
  • Using protective clothing and gloves
  • Using skin barrier creams when protective gloves aren’t suitable
  • Using safer or weaker alternatives to harsh solutions where possible
  • Washing off contaminants and irritates as quickly as possible
  • Avoiding prolonged periods of ‘wet work’
  • Using moisturisers or emollients regularly

Can dermatitis be cured?

The symptoms of contact dermatitis start to clear up as soon as exposure to the irritant substance stops.

However, as soon as the skin is exposed again the symptoms will likely reappear. It is not possible to cure the underlying sensitivity.

This means that in reality, contact dermatitis can only be managed and not cured completely. This is why it is so important to avoid triggering it in the first place. Prevention is your best option as there is no cure.

What are employers’ legal responsibilities around preventing and managing occupational contact dermatitis?

If your business involves a working environment with a risk of contact dermatitis, it is your legal obligation to assess and reduce that risk as much as possible.

One way to meet this obligation is by carrying out workplace skin surveillance. While minimising exposure to hazardous substances and other control measures should help reduce the risk to employees, you can only truly protect your employees if you also monitor them.

If you are interested in finding out more about skin surveillance and how an occupational health team can support this, get in touch today.

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