Chemical injuries: More than skin deep

Work-related skin diseases affect employees in a wide range of jobs. Construction workers, hairdressers, mechanics, and healthcare providers all are considered at high risk for skin damage.

An allergic reaction or bout of dermatitis can force employees to take time off work. And in some cases, chemical exposure can lead to serious illness and permanent disability, including burns, poisoning, or systemic organ damage.

Here are tips for a safe work environment:

Provide the right gloves. Get a compatibility chart from the glove manufacturer and check it against the chemicals your employees use. Be aware that for some applications, frequent glove changes are the only way to provide protection.

Promote proper hygiene. If employees don’t wash regularly, dangerous chemicals can linger on their skin. Also warn employees about using creams and lotions before washing, as they can trap contaminants against the skin.

Go beyond gloves. Farm and landscape workers should wear long-sleeve shirts to limit pesticide exposure. More than 90 percent of all pesticide exposure occurs through the skin, and sweat often results in chemicals being absorbed more readily.

Educate and train. Increase employee awareness about the dangers of chemical exposure. Employees may forget about the long-term impact when they don’t see an immediate skin reaction. Review your chemical risks and train employees to respond appropriately. 

Limit exposure. Look for ways to eliminate chemical exposure. Are newer, non-toxic chemicals available? Can you automate a manual process? For example, Portland cement and metalworking fluids both have evolved over the years, and safer versions are now available.

Recognize that people’s reaction to chemical exposure will vary. Some employees may experience symptoms after just a single incident, while others can work with a chemical for years without issue.