Skin is the largest organ our bodies have and we spend a great percentage of our lives at work so it is no surprise that occupational skin diseases are the most common occupational disease reported. For a skin disease to be work related there must be a causal relationship between work and the skin disease!
There are 3 broad groups of skin diseases that are common in the workplace:
* Irritant contact dermatitis – this is the largest group causing approximately 80% of all occupational skin diseases and the majority of these cases involve the hands. Irritant contact dermatitis happens when a chemical or physical agent injure the skin’s surface faster than the skin can repair the damage. Irritant contact dermatitis can include chemical burns and most cases of contact urticaria.
* Allergic contact dermatitis- is simply an allergy to a contact allergen. Only people with an allergy will react to a specific allergen and show symptoms of a dermatitis. These people may have been using a product previously (often for years) without any symptoms. Symptoms can occur within hours or days of contact and usually at the site of contact (fingers, hands) or by incidental contact mouth, face or groin (hands in pockets). Symptoms settle when contact time with the specific allergen is reduced (time off from work such as holidays or back to studies).
* Other occupational skin diseases- other skin conditions may occur as a result of occupational exposures and this incidence is approximately 10%. Skin conditions such as skin cancer may result in some occupations that have had a higher rate of sun exposure – such as council workers, bricklayers and roof tilers etc. Skin infections may occur with certain occupations such as hospital, abattoir and sewage plant workers etc. The incidence of Basal Cell Carcinomas (potential skin cancer) may occur at a higher incidence in occupations such as Boilermakers who have an increased risk of welding burns.
How do these conditions occur?
Occupational Skin Diseases may follow exposure to chemical, biological or physical agents.
Some chemical agents that can cause issues are: hair dyes and bleaching agents, preservatives, rubber additives, epoxy resins and acrylates, oils, cements (chromate), printing dyes, clothing, footwear dyes and solvents.
Some biological agents that can cause issues are: contact with other humans, plants, animals, insects and marine life. These can expose workers to agents causing infection, wounds, urticaria and contact dermatitis.
Some physical agents that can cause issues are: exposure to hot and cold temperatures, wet environments, direct heat, vibrating tools or mechanical trauma. These can all result in the skin becoming stressed and an injury resulting like vibration white finger, thermal burns, bacterial or fungal infection and irritant dermatitis.
Prevention of Occupational Skin Diseases:
Work places and workers have a duty of care to provide information (Material Safety Data Sheets) and work together to minimise exposure and harm in the workplace. Resources from WorkCover, Safe Work Australia and the Skin and Cancer Foundation can accessed to allow workplaces to identify risks and plan strategies to eliminate occupational skin exposures.
Strategies such as changing work methods, using a safer product, obtaining the right gloves or changing gloves more frequently might be all that is needed to avoid a skin disease. The effective use of barrier creams, moisturisers and the avoidance of known irritants is vital to maintain the skins integrity.
If an occupational skin disease is known it is important to obtain an accurate diagnosis of the problem early to avoid long term problems. Seek medical advice from your GP.