Exposure to chemicals in the workplace is one of the leading causes of skin diseases in the United States. According to the bureau of labor and statistics, skin diseases are more prevalent in the workplace than respiratory illnesses, outpacing them better than 2:1 based on 2006 figures.1
Why should you be concerned? Many chemicals are easily absorbed through the skin. In most cases the resulting skin disease, such as contact dermatitis, is caused by direct contact with the chemical. But in some cases, just breathing in the vapors can cause a more serious systemic reaction to the chemical. The resulting effect could show up as a rash or something far worse. The economic impact of occupational skin diseases “may range from $222 million to $1 billion” according to C.G. Toby Mathias’s, MD editorial The Cost of Occupational Skin Disease.2 These costs, however, do not include the effect it has on the quality of life for the individual.
While there are many different effects from dermal exposure to chemicals, this post only describes two of the more common types, contact dermatitis and sensitization. “Contact dermatitis: A skin condition caused by contact between skin and some substance. Includes irritant contact dermatitis (a rash brought on purely by repeated irritation from a substance such as water causing “dish pan hands”) and allergic contact dermatitis (involving a specific sensitivity or allergy to a specific substance such as poison ivy).”3
“Chemical sensitization is caused by an allergic reaction the body can develop to many chemicals. This allergy may exist already or may develop following a few days, weeks or even years of exposure. Once a person becomes sensitized, even very small amounts of chemicals can bring out an allergic reaction.”4
While dermal exposure to chemicals is a problem for many employers, there is good news.
How is it preventable? Many options exist to protect employees from chemical exposure such as employing a variety of engineering and administrative controls, or through the use personal protective equipment (PPE). Substituting the problem chemical with a non-hazardous alternative will remove the potentially harmful effect. When substitution is not possible or feasible, installing protective controls to minimize or eliminate contact with the chemicals is the next best option. Lastly, personal protective equipment, which may or may not be used in conjunction with other types of safety controls, will protect or cover any exposed skin. PPE like gloves, disposables sleeves, coveralls, chemical suits, goggles, and face shields, etc., will not eliminate the hazard but will provide personal protection from them. One key component to minimizing or eliminating dermal exposure to chemicals is training. Training should include information on the hazards, effects, and how to protect employees (from PPE use and selection to the use of engineering controls).
What happens if I get a chemical onto my skin? The immediate solution is to wash your hands with soap and water. You should never wash your hands with an organic solvent for this could exacerbate a skin condition and be absorbed quickly into your circulatory system, potentially causing other harm.
Before you work with any new chemical you should consult the material safety data sheet (msds) before using. This document will provide information on the hazardous effects, routes of entry, PPE or other controls to protect you from the chemical. It will also provide information on how to treat an exposure to the chemical correctly and safely.
As defined within OSHA’s (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) Hazard Communication Standard 29 CFR 1910.1200, it is your legal “right to know” about the hazardous chemicals you may be exposed to at your place of employment.
Each individual or cumulative effect has the potential to adversely affect a company and their employees. Only through a proactive effort to prevent contact with hazardous chemicals through the proper use of engineering and administrative controls, and personal protective equipment will a company minimize or eliminate dermal exposure to chemicals. This will ensure the safety and health of their most valuable asset, their employees.
1 Retrieved from the website http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/dermalexposure/index.html
2 C. G. Toby Mathias, MD Arch Dermatol. 1985;121(3):332-334.
3 Retrieved from the website http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=20442
4 Retrieved from the website http://www.bacweb.org/safety_training/sh_tips.htm