Working with substances that cause skin problems guide

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Work-related skin problems

Work-related skin problems (also known as eczema and dermatitis) can cause serious problems for the sufferer. Many people live with pain and discomfort because of these skin conditions, and some ultimately have to give up work. However, by taking a sensible approach to looking after health and safety, work-related skin problems can be prevented.

How can skin problems affect you?

The skin is the largest organ in the body and forms a protective barrier and some substances can irritate or even burn the skin. Any problems or breaches in the barrier allow access through the skin to the inner parts of the body where substances can accumulate and cause long-term health effects. Some types of skin disease are a result of an allergy to something at work and this may mean that you would have to leave work altogether. Many skin diseases can be disfiguring and embarrassing for the sufferer.

Some common signs of dermatitis include:

  • dryness;
  • redness or swelling of the hands, fingers or other exposed areas;
  • cracking of skin on hands and fingers;
  • blisters;
  • flaking;
  • itching.

Dermatitis can be caused by a range of chemicals such as cleaning materials or solvents, some metals, latex, resin, cosmetics or even foods and plants.

Employees who are experiencing difficulties with their skin should inform their manager and their health and safety representative at the earliest opportunity.

What are employers' responsibilities?

The law says that employers must do a risk assessment in order to identify potential skin hazards in the workplace. The level of health risk must be determined so that measures can be put in place to get rid of, or at least minimise, the risk. The risk assessment process should look at types of work, especially when a lot of wet work and hand washing is involved.

Employees can be protected in a variety of ways, including:

  • getting rid of the risk by using a different substance;
  • setting out a safe system of work. This should try to ensure that there is no contact between the worker and the substance and should specify safe handling methods;
  • undertaking training and instruction of employees in order to encourage safe working;
  • as a last resort, providing suitable personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves;
  • introducing health surveillance and getting workers to report any skin problems.

Dermatitis in some types of work is reportable to the Health and Safety Executive.

What help is available for employees?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has useful information on its website on work-related skin disease.

The TUC has information on a range of health conditions on its website. You should also contact your union or health and safety representative for advice if you have any issues relating to dermatitis at work.

The Health for Work Adviceline can offer advice to employers, health and safety representatives and employees on the common signs of skin problems, as well as giving guidance on how employers can look after the health of staff.

For more information about preventing skin problems, or for advice about other employee health issues, please contact the free Health for Work Adviceline on 0800 077 88 44.

Further sources of information

  • The British Occupational Health Research Foundation (BOHRF) has produced a guide for employers, workers and their representatives on Dermatitis and Urticaria, which is available on the BOHRF website.
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