Occupational contact dermatitis is a widespread, under-reported, painful and unsightly disease which attacks the skin of workers exposed to any one or more of a surprisingly wide range of allergenic and irritant substances in the workplace, and can leave it swollen, reddened, cracked and blistered. The fact that so many employees contract dermatitis in the UK annually as a result of their work provides pretty conclusive evidence that some businesses risk management systems are in need of a revisit – or those businesses risk the chance of an expensive personal injury claim.
Preventing incidences of contact dermatitis at work is not a herculean undertaking for employers. Despite the relative ease with which this skin disease could be eliminated or greatly reduced in the UK workforce and the fact that undertaking to protect their employees from it is a legal obligation on employers under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (amongst other regulations), the problem of employers failing in their duty of care to their employees in this respect refuses to go away.
Employers are legally obliged to identify hazards, environmental and work-related, assess risk and have control measures in place to protect their employees and this system should be regularly revisited and updated as necessary. When it comes to avoiding contact dermatitis at work, current best industry practice stipulates a three prong strategy designed to fulfil employers’ duty of care obligations:
1) Employee health and safety training – regular skin checks for indications of dermatitis, either carried out by a health professional or by way of self-examination. Training for employees about the nature of the substances they are exposed to in the course of their work, the risks the substances pose and the precautions that must be taken remove or reduce those risks. How to use the personal protective equipment supplied, such as barrier creams and gloves. Employees informed of the results of any exposure monitoring.
2) Protecting skin – skincare information available, including on recommended hand washing techniques and the use of pre and post work skin moisturisers.
3) Avoiding contact – by substituting the allergenic or irritant substances with safer alternatives, remove physical contact with the allergenic or irritant substances from the work process, automate the process or use equipment for handling.
It’s really not rocket science, and all that dealing with contact dermatitis requires is common sense and compliance with health and safety legislation.
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