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Occupational Dermatitis

Save your skin!

Maintaining exceptional standards of hygiene is vitally important in lots of industries, from healthcare to food production, but excessive hand washing can actually cause a variety of irritating and severe skin complaints.

Earlier this year, a study by The Institute of Population Health at The University of Manchester, discovered that incidents of work related dermatitis in the UK have increased four-fold in health workers in recent years. This follows a national drive to get frontline hospital staff to wash their hands more frequently with soap, to reduce the spread of superbugs such as MRSA.

However while infections are stopped in their tracks and lives are being saved, the research shows that health care workers are now roughly 4.5 times more likely to suffer from irritant contact dermatitis than in 1996. This trend is mirrored across other industries that have been urged to improve hygiene in recent years, as well as those that regularly work in wet conditions or use certain chemicals.

Irritant contact dermatitis, as well allergic dermatitis which is also common in workplaces, damages the outer layer of skin and can occur after frequent exposure to weak irritants, such as soap or detergent. People suffering with these conditions usually feel a burning or stinging sensation and will have red and itchy skin. It can be tempting for people suffering with dermatitis to stop washing their hands so frequently, which could reverse a lot of the progress made in recent years.

This is encouraging many workplaces to buy soaps that are specifically manufactured to be less reactive to skin, as well as barrier creams that are rubbed into the hands and form a protective barrier over the skin that locks moisture in and keeps irritants out. Barrier creams are generally non-greasy so you can still carry out work that requires manual dexterity and some even have anti-bacterial properties for added protection.

Appropriate PPE, such as gloves and coveralls, can also be used to minimise substance contact. Employees at risk should be encouraged to report symptoms early so that employers can investigate possible causes and where other individuals in the same work group are suffering with similar skin problems, risk assessments and risk management strategies will need to be reviewed.

Once a doctor has confirmed that an employee is suffering from occupational dermatitis, it must be reported as an occupational disease to the HSE under the Reporting of Incidents, Diseases, and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR). The employer is responsible for this, but the doctor treating it has a responsibility to confirm the diagnosis and alert the employer to it.

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