Occupational dermatology is an important area of health for union members who perform manual labor, especially as the year heads deeper into winter. To combat the effects of winter on skin, as well as the effects of exposure to different chemicals and materials while on the job, educate your members on some best practices to prevent occupational contact dermatitis.
What Is Occupational Dermatitis?
Occupational dermatitis happens when skin becomes inflamed. The condition isn't infectious, and it's triggered by exposure to a substance at a work site, usually after direct skin contact. In some cases, it's caused by something in the air. As you might expect, this condition most commonly affects the hands.
Occupational skin disease is the second most prevalent work-related disease in the U.S. Looking at the numbers, 10% of current workers, or 15.2 million workers, suffer from dermatitis. Contact dermatitis makes up 90% to 95% of all cases of occupational skin disease.
There are two main types of this condition: irritant and allergic. While irritant occupational dermatitis makes up the lion's share of cases, allergic occupational dermatitis is more widespread overall.
Causes of Occupational Dermatitis
Work-related dermatitis can appear for a variety of reasons. For instance, solar or UV radiation can result in mechanical dermatitis, as can exposure to either extremely hot or cold environments. Scrapes, bruises and cuts can also increase exposure to allergens.
Members should be on the lookout for what specific substances affect their unique skin. Common irritants include degreasers; petroleum-based or acidic industrial solvents; and materials such as fiberglass, wool and fire-retardant fabrics.
As temperatures dip during the winter, skin may be more prone to drying and cracking. When skin is cracked, irritants can more easily penetrate layers of skin and the probability of developing dermatitis goes up.
Know the Symptoms
Symptoms of occupational dermatitis can include:
- Dry, scaly patches of skin
- Burning or itching
- Cracked skin
- Oozing blisters
- Tight-feeling skin
- Mild swelling
Take Preventive Steps
Members should be aware of the potential hazards present at their work sites and know how to keep themselves safe. Union leaders can help by offering education and support. What contaminants are present? Have members read the safety manual for the site, and do they know to talk to their on-site supervisor with any questions or concerns?
Encourage members to ask their supervisor to host a training on potential dangers and preventive steps for the site in question. You can also work to ensure your membership understands basic strategies for avoiding contact dermatitis.
- Eliminate exposure. Eliminating exposure altogether is the safest and best way to avoid occupational dermatitis. If that's not possible, have employers install a ventilation system or isolation booth on the work site to help prevent skin contamination.
- Look for safer alternatives. If the work site contains products with chemicals that are known to irritate skin or cause dermatitis, members should seek out a different product. For instance, they could use a water-based product instead of a solvent-based one.
- Use a barrier cream. Though gloves guard skin against irritants, a barrier cream provides an additional layer of protection.
- Wash hands with mild soap. Members should avoid washing their hands with solvents, and they should use warm water — not hot water, which can burn or dry out the skin.
- Keep skin moist. Particularly during winter months, members should make an effort to keep their skin properly moisturized. This includes limiting showers and applying moisturizer right after drying the skin.
- Wear personal protective gear. To avoid direct skin contact with contaminants, remind workers to wear gloves, aprons, coveralls, protective goggles and chemical bodysuits on the job whenever possible. Highlight the importance of wearing protective gear when there's a chance of coming into contact with solvents or hardening agents such as glue, or when members plan to clean work areas or equipment using disinfectants, detergents or soaps.
- Change out of contaminated clothing. Contaminated clothing should be removed right away.
- Seek medical attention. If a worker notices any concerning changes to their skin while working, they should seek medical treatment. Detecting symptoms early can help reduce or prevent the onset of occupational dermatitis.
The effects of winter on skin can leave your members at greater risk for occupational dermatitis. By being aware of the symptoms, causes and preventive measures, they can avoid this irritating and often painful condition.
Jackie Lam is a personal finance writer who has written for both Fortune 500 companies and fintech startups. In a former life, she worked in the communications department of an entertainment labor union. Now a full-time freelancer, she enjoys helping fellow freelancers build a successful business.