Skin at Work

Work-related skin problems are very common but they can be very costly. This is not just through the suffering individuals experience, who’s careers can be ended, but also the employer who has to cover sickness absence, recruitment, training and compensation expenses.

Work-related skin problems can happen in most workplaces although there are some jobs which are more high-risk, such as:

  • Catering
  • Hairdressing
  • Health Services
  • Dentistry
  • Printing
  • Metal machinery
  • Motor vehicle repair
  • Construction

Work-related skin problems are caused or made worse by exposure to or coming into contact with substances such as chemicals. Other factors which may lead to skin problems are having wet hands for long periods or exposure to the sun. The most common skin complaint is eczema (dermatitis), but urticaria and skin cancer are also problems.

The Law

The law requires employers to adequately control exposure to materials in the workplace that cause ill health. This includes exposure to materials that cause skin diseases and materials that enter the body through the skin and cause problems elsewhere.

Employers and employees need to comply with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH). Employers are required to:

  • assess the risks
  • provide adequate control measures and ensure their use and maintenance
  • provide employees with information, instruction and training
  • provide health surveillance where needed

The APC Approach

These problems are preventable. There are some simple, cost-effective steps both employers and employees can take to avoid skin problems at work. If you do end up with a skin problem the Avoid, Protect and Check approach can help you manage it as well as prevent it.

Avoid direct contact between unprotected hands and substances, products and wet work where this is sensible and practical, for instance:

  • Get rid of the substance/product/wet work altogether
  • Substitute for something less harmful
  • Introduce controls (such as tools or equipment) to keep a safe working distance between skin and substances/products/wet work.

Protect the skin. Avoiding contact will not always be possible, if this is the case:

  • Provide suitable PPE (i.e gloves)
  • Provide mild skin cleaning cream and washing facilities with hot and cold water.
  • Tell workers to wash their hands before eating and drinking, and before wearing gloves. Suitable cleaning systems exist for mobile workers.
  • Remind workers to wash any contamination from their skin straight away.
  • Provide soft cotton or disposable paper towels for drying the skin.
  • Tell workers about the importance of thorough drying their skin after washing. Protect the skin by moisturising as often as possible and particularly at the end of the day – this replaces the natural oils that help keep the skin’s protective barrier working properly.
  • Use suitable pre-work creams.

Check hands regularly for the first signs of itchy, dry or red skin:

  • Regular skin checks will help spot the early signs of dermatitis or other skin problems caused by skin exposure
  • The earlier that health effects are recognised and treated, the more likely it is that the sufferer will make a full recovery
  • Checks can show whether an adequate standard of control is being maintained.   They may give an early indication of lapses in control and a need to reassess the controls used

Protective gloves tend to be less effective than other control measures but if avoiding contact is impractical or is not enough to protect employees then gloves may be needed. When you select protective gloves, base your choice on the work, the wearer and the environment they work in. You need to consider the following five factors:

  • Identify the substances handled.
  • Identify all other hazards.
  • Consider the type and duration of contact.
  • Consider the user – size and comfort.
  • Consider the task.

If you would like more information on Skin at Work see the HSE website

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