A little known problem in the construction world is the occupational skin diseases that affect many workers. Despite the various ways workers attempt to protect themselves the skin is still the largest organ of the body and so is the most vulnerable due to the amount of exposure it endures.

Construction workers can suffer from a disease called Dermatitis which is a skin disease. Skin diseases are caused by substances and processes used in the workplace. Known as dermatitis, this disease causes an inflammation of the skin. This disease is most often caused when the skin comes into contact with harmful agents.

There are 2 types of Dermatitis

  • Allergic Contact Dermatitis

Some substances penetrate the dermis and sensitise the skin. The result is that even very low concentrations of the substance trigger an allergic reaction in the future. Sensitisation may occur within days of exposure but usually takes months to years to fully show itself. That is why many workers are not aware they have a problem until it is very bad. Once a worker develops sensitivity to something or some substance, it is a life-long problem and any exposure to the sensitising substance must be avoided. Allergic responses are different for different people and the rash produced may look just like an irritant contact dermatitis.

  • Irritant Contact Dermatitis

Most Dermatitis inflammations (about 90%) are a result of contact with one or more of the many irritant agents on the construction site. It can occur in anyone and can show itself immediately or after years of exposure. The skin becomes red at the site of contact (with construction work this is usually the hands) and blisters, swelling and itching may develop. Over time, the skin becomes thick, rough and cracked.

Occupational skin diseases such as Dermatitis are a widespread problem. Construction workers and painters are particularly susceptible to this disease because they are in constant contact with cement, epoxy resins, paint, solvents etc.

How can skin diseases be prevented?

A safer alternative to the product giving the problems should be sought. The hazard should be eliminated by for example replacing epoxy paint withnon-epoxy containing paint.

The work process should be totally or partially enclosed. For example, total or partial enclosures around machines, parts of machines, or conveyer belts can prevent oil mist and oil splashes contaminating workers’ hands and clothing. If it is necessary to see the part being machined, these enclosures can be transparent. Mineral oils are one of the most common causes of dermatitis.

A possible solution may be automating certain work processes. An example would be using a machine to wash paint trays instead of workers scrubbing the trays with solvents. This will eliminate the problems caused by breathing in solvent vapours, as well as skin problems caused by contact with solvents.

Work practices could be changed, to eliminate or reduce the chances of skin contact with chemicals. An example would be providing automatic dispensing of organic solvents from drums to containers thereby reducing the risk of skin irritation when the solvent splashes or vaporises.

(Photo: adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Tips to Follow:

  • Employers must provide protective clothing. PPE should be supplied and laundered by the employer. Protective clothing should never be taken home.
  • Gloves do protect workers hands but some workers skin may be irritated by latex gloves. Try using PVC gloves if you develop a reaction to latex.
  • During long periods of work, remove gloves and give hands time to air at regularly because hand care is important.
  • Hand cleaning should be done with soap or other solvent-free hand cleansersand not with organic solvents.
  • As soon as you notice any changes in your skin texture, colour etc. see a doctor. Perhaps if it is detected earlier it can be cured or managed better so as not to develop into full blown occupational dermatitis.
  • Good housekeeping is important. Work areas should be kept as clean as possible. Ensure that surfaces and the outside of bottles and their containers are not splattered with substances.
  • Employers should provide paper or disposable towels for workers to dry their skin. Workers can insist on this. Toxic materials should not be wiped off with a reusable towel.
  • Like all dangerous activities, work using dangerous chemicals should be isolated to prevent workers that are not involved from being exposed.

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