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Occupational Health


Our skin is exposed to a variety of substances and environments at work, which can aggravate it. The skin is the body’s first line defence against physical, chemical and microbiological hazards. Prolonged exposure to some substances, even water, can challenge the skins protective mechanism.

Dermatitis is the term used to describe skin inflammation. Contact Dermatitis (also known as eczema) occurs as a result of repeated contact with substances that cause either irritation (Irritant Contact Dermatitis - ICD) or specific sensitisation (Allergic Contact Dermatitis -ACD). The irritants can be chemical, biological, mechanical or physical. Any job that either involves frequent hand washing or in direct contact with certain products (e.g. gloves) or chemicals can cause dermatitis. The environment at work can also cause skin problems or make them worse, e.g. extremes of temperature (hot or cold) or a very dry atmosphere can make skin dry and inflamed.

Examples of substances at work that may cause dermatitis include:

  • solvents used in paints, glues or other surface coatings
  • chemicals
  • biological agents, e.g. plants, bacteria and fungi
  • prolonged or frequent contact with water, e.g. more than two hours a day
  • repeated friction and/or mechanical abrasion, e.g. abrasive substances such as sand
  • alcohols, degreasers, coolants, descalers and detergents
  • disinfectants, petroleum products, soaps and cleaners

The main feature of dermatitis is dry, red and itchy skin. Swelling, flaking, blistering, cracking and pain may follow. Symptoms can vary from being a minor discomfort to becoming a painful and inconvenient problem. It can also become quite significant if not picked up early and treated effectively as it can potentially lead to skin infections, sickness absence and in the worst case scenario it can affect an individuals’ fitness to do their job. This skin care leaflet gives guidance on preventative measures

Glove choice for the task

The easiest way to prevent damage is to avoid contact altogether but this isn’t practical therefore covering the skin with gloves that are designed to protect against a wide range of physical and chemical hazards is recommended.   Always ensure that you have the right glove for the task being performed  - the University’s Glove Selection, Guidance for Handling Chemicals gives  comprehensive information on choosing the right glove. Your choice will depend on the hazard, length of exposure and the amount of dexterity required when undertaking a task.

Irritant Contact Dermatitis

This can occur quickly after contact with a strong irritant, or over a longer period from repeated contact with weaker irritants. Repeated and/or prolonged contact with water can cause irritant dermatitis. This is often referred to as ‘wet work’.

Individuals who may come in contact with irritants at work include: cleaners, caterers, engineers, laboratory workers and those working in healthcare.

Allergic Contact Dermatitis

This reaction occurs when the individual develops an allergy (becomes sensitised) to something that comes into contact with their skin (the irritant substance causes the skin sensitisation). The signs and symptoms can be difficult to distinguish from irritant contact dermatitis.

Sensitisation can develop over time and it may be weeks, months or even years before it becomes apparent (Type IV) Although rare, some individuals can have a reaction to a substance almost immediately or within 5-10 minutes of exposure to the offending substance (Type I).

 Once an individual has developed an allergy or become sensitised to a substance the problem is lifelong and sometimes a change in occupation may be necessary. They may react to increasingly smaller amounts and continued exposure can result in permanent vulnerability and increasingly severe symptoms.

Contact Urticaria

This occurs when an individual becomes sensitised to a substance. They may experience a rapid skin response often referred to as a ‘wheal (swelling) and flare (red mark)’ reaction or hives. It is different from irritant contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis in that it quickly follows skin contact and disappears again within hours. There may also be the presence of rhinitis, conjunctivitis, facial swelling, respiratory distress, asthma and in severe cases circulatory collapse (severe anaphylaxis).

Latex gloves

Natural rubber latex can cause contact urticaria in individuals who have become sensitised. The university’s policy for the Latex Disposable Glove Use and Guidance Policy, where latex gloves are worn a risk assessment must be undertaken and reviewed annually.

Reporting symptoms

Individuals who suspect that they may be suffering from a work-related skin problem should inform their supervisor and be referred to OH for an assessment.

Further information