MOHS’s Deputy Chief Occupational Health Advisor explains possible causes of workplace skin problems and how to help employees.
Skin problems can be some of the most complex and difficult workplace issues to manage.
When an employee presents a rash, there are many factors to consider related to both work and home life.
A timely referral to an Occupational Health (OH) professional is important as they will be able to provide advice and support for both the company and the individual.
What might be the cause of skin problems?
As a starting point, it is always helpful to ask the employee what they believe to be the cause of their skin problem as this may help focus the investigator on likely culprits.
An employee may be exposed to multiple products during their work, therefore reviewing products’ Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) is usually the best starting point when attempting to identify the culprit, along with a Google search of the health effects of its main constituents. This may take some time, but it usually pays dividends when trying to assess if the issue is work based, or due to some other factor.
In many cases, information obtained from these two sources will help identify likely causative agents. The removal of exposure, for example by changing the product, issuing appropriate PPE or temporarily changing jobs, may act as a useful measure of your theory – if the problem clears when the employee is no longer exposed, then there is strong evidence that your suspicions were correct. Steps can then be taken to manage future exposure.
However, cases are not always that simple.
Ensure employees are fully informed
We should remember that once the skin is damaged, it can take some months to fully heal, despite outward appearances.
Furthermore, regardless of the original cause, many factors can contribute to keeping the skin in poor condition, even though exposure has ended.
Damaged skin will be affected by all sorts of factors separate to work, including personal hygiene. Soaps and shampoos will often remove healthy oils from damaged skin, causing further dryness; household chores including wet work such as cleaning and washing up; and even people’s diet, for example the acids that leak from some peeled fruits can be a factor in agitating skin.
Effective management of stubborn cases requires that the employee is made aware of all of these factors and given advice on how to manage these additional risks, along with information about effective skin care and the use of creams and emollients.
Continuity of skin care regime
Employees should be reminded of the importance of continuing with a skin care regime even once the affected site has healed. This must last for some months after initial healing.
It is here, at the final hurdle, where the plan often fails as the worker loses interest in skin care once the main driving factors, such as pain or poor appearance, are resolved, followed by a rapid return in symptoms, possibly worse than the original ones.
Ensuring there are continued reviews by an OH professional will encourage the employee to continue with their skin care regime and allow timely assessment where symptoms deteriorate.
Once an issue is fully resolved and the worker is ready to be discharged from regular review, they should be reminded of the importance of effective and routine skin care and encouraged to report any new or recurring problems quickly.
We should remember that in most cases, the longer that a health problem goes untreated, the more difficult treatment becomes.
Author: Simon Jukes, Deputy Chief Occupational Health Advisor, MOHS Workplace Health