Occupational skin diseases: More common than you think
Occupational skin diseases are the second-most common type of occupational disease. NIOSH estimates that more than 13 million U.S. workers are potentially exposed to chemicals that can be absorbed through their skin. Workers at risk of occupational skin diseases include those in construction, health care, agriculture, food service, auto repair and cosmetology.
“Dermal exposure to hazardous agents can result in a variety of occupational diseases and disorders, including occupational skin diseases (OSD) and systemic toxicity,” NIOSH states. The agency goes on to note that past efforts to control hazardous chemicals in the workplace largely focused on inhalation exposure. This means that although prevention strategies and methods are well-developed for inhalation risks, standardized methods are “currently lacking” for measuring and assessing chemical-related skin exposure.
What you need to know
Occupational skin diseases can take several forms, including irritant contact dermatitis; allergic contact dermatitis; skin cancers, infections and injuries; and other skin diseases. Contact dermatitis – also known as eczema – is the most commonly reported occupational skin disease. Symptoms include painful and itchy skin, blisters, redness, and swelling.
Occupational skin diseases and disorders most often are caused by chemical agents by way of either primary irritants or sensitizers. Primary irritants act directly on a worker’s skin through chemical reactions, while sensitizers – through repeated exposure – can result in allergic reactions. Workers’ skin can be exposed to chemicals through direct contact with a contaminated surface, inhaling aerosols, immersion and splashes.
Fortunately for workers, dermal exposure can be controlled or prevented. One method, OSHA notes, is switching the chemical being used to something less volatile. Another option is re-designing the work process to help avoid splashes and immersion risks. “Where that is not feasible, personal protection in the form of chemical protective gloves, an apron or clothing should be selected,” the agency states. In addition, practicing good housekeeping can help prevent the accumulation of dermally toxic contaminants on work surfaces.
Go to www.osha.gov/SLTC/dermalexposure/prevention.html for more information from OSHA on dermal exposure prevention.