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Skin disorders and exposures

Skin exposure to substances at work can harm the skin and cause disease.

Exposure can occur through contact with cleaning products, oils, paints, adhesives and foodstuffs. It can also happen when work activities generate contaminants such as welding fumes, wet cement and wood dust.

Some chemicals that come in contact with the skin can be absorbed and cause disease in other areas of the body.

The skin can also be damaged by frequent or prolonged contact with water. Work involving more than 20 hand washes per shift or having wet hands for more than two hours per shift is known as wet work.

Industries with higher risk of skin exposure include:

  • food services
  • construction
  • cleaning and maintenance
  • hairdressing and beauty therapy
  • health and community care
  • metal working
  • motor vehicle repair
  • printing.

Seek medical advice for skin conditions as a result of occupational exposure. Severe allergic reactions of the skin may require immediate medical attention.

Many common work activities can expose skin to potentially harmful contaminants.

Health effects

The skin is an important organ that acts as a two-way barrier to protect the body from the outside world.

Some contaminants can pass easily though intact skin and enter other parts of the body. Broken skin (e.g. rashes, cuts, and scratches), very dry skin and skin that is frequently wet and dried is at increased risk of absorbing contaminants.

Frequent wetting and drying or use of alcohol based hand sanitisers can strip the skin of fats, making it dry and more vulnerable.

There are four main types of contaminants that can harm the skin:

Contaminant type Potential harm
Corrosives Burns
Irritants Irritant contact dermatitis
Sensitisers Allergic contact dermatitis
Those that cause other diseases Skin infections

Common work-related skin diseases

A safety data sheet will provide information on whether a chemical is a skin irritant or sensitiser


 Irritant contact dermatitis from excess washing
Irritant contact dermatitis from excess washing

Irritant contact dermatitis can occur quickly from exposure to a strong irritant or develop more slowly after repeated exposure to a mild irritant. It can also be caused by wet work. Irritant contact dermatitis happens at the area of skin where contact occurred. Examples of contaminants that cause this skin condition are solvents, oils, acids and detergents.


 Allergic contact dermatitis from garlic 
Allergic contact dermatitis from garlic

Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when the body becomes sensitive to a contaminant over time. This can happen over weeks, months or years of exposure. After sensitisation has occurred even very small exposures can cause allergic skin reactions within 24 hours. This allergy will stay with the affected person for the rest of their life and the only way to control symptoms is to prevent further exposure. Common examples of allergy causing contaminants are nickel, hair dye, cement, leather, and certain food stuffs.


 Contact urticaria from latex gloves 
Allergic contact dermatitis on a hairdresser’s hands

Contact urticaria may occur immediately after contact with a substance that is an irritant or sensitiser. Contact urticaria is caused by an irritant or allergic reaction to a substance and may present as red flaring, itching, swelling and welts (hives) of the skin that occurs soon after exposure. If the urticaria is caused by an allergic reaction, other symptoms such as sneezing, a runny nose or wheezing may also occur. In severe cases there may be difficulty with breathing and anaphylactic shock, which is life-threatening. Common examples of substances that can cause contact urticaria include natural latex rubber found in latex gloves, hairdressing bleach and seafood.

Image file source: UK HSE Image library

Skin absorption

Some contaminates can be readily absorbed through the skin and cause health effects in other areas of the body. Examples include:

Contaminant Area affected
Aromatic amines Bladder (cancer)
Mineral oils Scrotum (cancer)
Benzene Blood (leukemia)
Organophosphates Nervous system (muscle weakness)

A safety data sheet will provide information on whether a chemical is harmful via skin absorption.

Managing exposure

Identification

Identify processes that may involve skin exposures. Safety data sheets, technical data sheets and labels on products are a good source of information.

View some examples of irritants and sensitisers that workers can be exposed to:

      Occupation

      Irritants that can cause irritant contact dermatitis

      Sensitisers that can cause allergic contact dermatitis

      Abattoir workers

      Acids, alkalis, detergents, waste products, wet-work

      Animal proteins, formaldehyde, latex gloves, nickel

      Cleaners

      Detergents, other cleaning products, solvents, wet-work

      Formaldehyde, germicidal agents

      Construction workers

      Cement, dusts, solvents, sand, wet-work

      Cement, chromium, cobalt, epoxy resins, nickel, resins, wood dust, isocyanate based products

      Cooks and caterers

      Acids, alkalis, bleaching agents, detergents, vegetable juices, wet-work

      Some flavours, formaldehyde, garlic, sodium metabisulphite, spices

      Hairdressers

      Bleaching agents, dyes, perming solutions, shampoos, wet-work

      Dyes, nickel, persulphates, perfumes, latex gloves, amine based chemicals

      Health care workers

      Disinfectants, detergents, wet-work

      Latex gloves, local anaesthetics, antibiotics, antiseptics, formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde

      Metal workers

      Cutting fluids, solvents, metal shavings/dust, wet-work

      Additives/preservatives in cutting fluids, chromium, nickel

      Motor vehicle repairers

      Aggressive hand cleaners, fuels, oils, paints, solvents

      Chromium, cobalt, epoxy resins, nickel

      Printers

      Solvents

      Colophony, formaldehyde, metals in inks & resins, hardeners, turpentine

      Fishing, trawling or seafood handling

      Fish products, wet-work

      Seafood

Control the risks

Stop or reduce the exposures:

Where possible, stop using products or doing work activities that can harm the skin or cause disease

  • Use encapsulated machines or automated equipment such as dishwashers or parts washers.

Use a less harmful material or substance

  • A less concentrated substance
  • A water-based product instead of solvent based product.

Use products in a form that is less likely to be absorbed into the skin

  • Instead of liquids or powders use pellets or granules
  • Follow the manufacturers or suppliers suggested dilution rates for chemicals.

Cover cuts as these may provide a route of entry for substances.

Control the exposures:

  • Separate workers from the hazard.

    Enclose the process, handling system or contaminant

    • Use a glove box

    Create a safe working distance between the skin and contaminants

    • Use tools and equipment such as tongs, hooks and scoops.


    Prevent incidental contact with contaminants

    • Use good housekeeping practices to ensure surfaces are kept clean.

Protect the skin:

Good skin care including, proper hand washing, hand drying and using a skin lotion to moisturise the skin and prevent drying will help to maintain the skin’s integrity and reduce the risk of irritant and allergic contact dermatitis developing.

Barrier creams do not protect against absorption of substances

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

PPE may be needed if it is not possible to avoid skin contact using other control measures.  Several PPE items may be needed to protect the worker. How much depends on the level of potential contamination and can include a combination of overalls, goggles, face shield, respirator, gloves and/or boot covers.

The personal protective equipment film shows how to correctly and safely put on, wear and remove PPE. It also shows how to dispose of it.

Gloves

No one type of glove will suit every work task, every contaminant and every worker.

When choosing the right glove, consider:

  • the work activity
    • if dexterity is required for the task
    • the type of glove for the process (short cuff or arm length)
    • the length of time it takes to conduct the task
    • whether the task involves chemical splashes or immersion
    • whether cotton glove liners are required to reduce sweating in hot conditions
  • the worker
    • provide a range of different sizes to fit individual workers
    • minimise the risk of latex allergies by choosing powder free non-latex gloves
  • the contaminant
    • the breakthrough time of the specific chemical
    • the potential lifespan of the gloves
    • a glove selection guide.

Glove manufacturers often produce selection guides that can be used to choose the most suitable glove. The Ansell 8th Edition Chemical Resistance Guide and the Prochoice Hand Protection Guide are two examples of manufacturer’s glove selection guides.

Before gloves are worn, ensure they are inspected for integrity, remove and replace gloves if they appear damaged or break-through occurs.

Once gloves are removed it is important to wash hands in case of accidental contamination.

Note: Gloves don’t last forever – some gloves are single use only.

View some examples of correct glove selection for different work activities

Chemically cleaning metal parts in an acid bath

  • metal parts

    Skin hazard:

    • Chemical splashes causing burns to skin.

    How to prevent exposure:

    • use racks to hold metal parts
    • have lifting equipment to dip and remove product from acid baths
    • use a rinse bath after dipping to prevent handling items coated in chemicals.

    Personal protective equipment required:

    • Chemical resistant face shield, apron and boots.

    Glove Selection:

    Gloves that have the EN 374 symbol

    Gloves that have the EN 374 symbol and can provide splash protection against acids, Heavy duty butyl rubber chemical resistant gloves would meet the requirement.

    Heavy duty rubber gloves

Salon hair washing/hair dying

  • Skin hazard:

    • hair dyes (p-phenylenediamine)
    • wet work.

    How to prevent exposure:

    • task rotation
    • following manufacturer’s instructions on correct use of chemicals
    • don’t reuse disposable gloves.

    Glove selection:

    Gloves that have the EN 374 symbol

    EN374 compliant disposable nitrile gloves.

Training

A worker training program can increase awareness of specific skin exposure risks in the workplace and highlight the importance of protecting the skin. Topics to cover include:

  • specific skin hazards in the workplace
  • health effects of exposure to contaminants
  • controls used to minimise skin exposure
  • early warning signs of skin disease
  • first aid procedures for chemical contact or splashes
  • effective hand washing techniques and personal hygiene principles
  • how to correctly put on and take off single use and reusable gloves.

Maintaining and reviewing the controls

You may already have the right controls in place to protect workers skin, but are they working properly?

  • When were the controls last checked?
  • Are controls used by workers when needed?
  • Is there a better control that could be implemented?

Health monitoring

Some chemicals requiring health monitoring can be readily absorbed through the skin. You must ensure health monitoring is provided to workers who are carrying out ongoing work using, handling, generating or storing certain substances (such as chromium, creosote and poly-aromatic hydrocarbons) and there is a significant risk to the worker's health because of exposure. Further guidance on determining significant risk can be found in Safe Work Australia's Health monitoring for exposure to hazardous chemicals - Guide for persons conducting a business or undertaking.

Last updated
13 June 2017

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