As the body’s largest organ, the skin plays a vital role in protecting us from external elements including substances and chemicals, as well as helping to control our body temperature and maintaining healthy water balance in our body.
It is therefore important that our skin is protected as much as possible, especially when we are at work. Work-related skin problems or diseases refer to any skin disorder which is caused by or made worse by workplace activity.
What could be the causes of skin problems?
According to a recent report from the HSE and The Health and Occupation Reporting Network (2021), the most common causes of work-related contact dermatitis are contact with soaps and cleaning materials as well as working with wet hands. However, skin problems can be complex and individualised, therefore it can be helpful to check with an employee what they believe to be the cause of their skin problem as the initial part of an investigation.
Occupations with higher rates of work-related skin problems include manufacturing, healthcare, hairdressing, floristry and beautician work.
If people are exposed to multiple products during their work, reviewing products’ Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) can be helpful in identifying the cause of their work-related skin condition. The removal of exposure – for example by changing the product, issuing appropriate PPE or temporarily changing certain tasks performed – may help to reduce symptoms.
Work-related skin conditions
There are several different types of work-related skin diseases including: dermatitis, contact urticaria, folliculitis, acne, infective and mechanical skin disease, and skin cancer.
Work-related skin problems can vary widely between individuals, for instance someone may experience minor skin irritation whereas there may also be a case of serious dermatitis in another individual.
It is also important to note that damaged skin can be affected by factors separate to work: 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.
Skin care regime: continuity
As part of ensuring the health and safety of employees, it is important employers make workers aware of all factors that may be affecting their existing or developing work-related skin condition, and given advice on how to manage additional risks along with information about effective skin care and the use of creams and ointments.
Employees should be reminded of the importance of continuing with a skin care regime even once the affected area has healed, and it is recommended this continues for several months after initial healing.
Occupational health reviews can help
If an employee receives regular reviews from an occupational health professional, it can help to prevent work-related skin problems arising and, in cases where there are issues, 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.
Sources: HSE (2021); Nursing Times (2019); IOSH (2018)