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Providing a helping hand to the industry

23 January 2013

David Lummis, CEO of The British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF), discusses the ongoing issue of work-related dermatitis and gives a round-up of the 'It's in your hands' campaign that was launched in 2007 to raise awarene

David Lummis, CEO of The British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF), discusses the ongoing issue of work-related dermatitis and gives a round-up of the 'It's in your hands' campaign that was launched in 2007 to raise awareness of the problem

Redness, blistering, weeping and cracking are just some of the tell-tale signs of work-related dermatitis. This painful skin condition is caused by contact with substances that irritate the skin or cause an allergic reaction1. Unfortunately, dermatitis affects a substantial number of individuals who handle irritant and allergenic materials. These people may work in sectors from engineering and automotive, through to food, construction and hairdressing. Someone who has contracted work-related dermatitis may experience symptoms such as severe itching and often pain that leaves them unable to carry out their work. This naturally impacts the individual's personal life, not to mention their employer's bottom line.

Every year, thousands of people suffer from work-related dermatitis, however, due to the nature of the condition and the fact that many incidents go unreported it is 'hard to get a handle' on the exact statistics. For example the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) is not required when the absence is less than three-days.

There is also a problem with clarification of work-related dermatitis by GPs because it is difficult to distinguish between domestic and occupational dermatitis and many work-related incidents are not identified as such.

In fact, it has been highlighted to the BSIF that GP training only includes one week covering 'industrial' skin problems during the entire six year training course. In 2006 it was reported that approximately 18,000 incidents of dermatitis were reported through RIDDOR and there were over two million presentations made at GP surgeries although there was no distinction made between domestic and work-related dermatitis.

Additionally, many Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) do not report the condition when they should. This lack of monitoring and hence reporting obviously affects overall dermatitis figures.

The true figure of work-related dermatitis in 2006 was somewhere between 18,000 and two million cases and unofficially, the BSIF estimated that the true level of work-related dermatitis incidents was between 300,000 and half a million with the 18,000 reported being only the 'tip of the iceberg'.

Based on these figures (both official and unofficial), the BSIF felt compelled to create a campaign, 'It's in your hands', to generate greater awareness of work-related dermatitis including providing advice and guidance to both employers and employees. The overarching objective of the campaign was to reduce the incidence of work-related dermatitis over a three year period (2007-2010) by 20 per cent.

From its launch in 2007, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has played a pivotal role in raising the profile of work-related dermatitis through the campaign and has instigated a number of targeted local authority inspector visits, most notably in the hair and beauty sector, an industry where the condition is common.

The campaign was designed to embrace any supply, training, or employer company to generate greater awareness of work-related dermatitis. For the first time, many BSIF member companies used the 'It's in your hands' campaign as a chance to combine activities with one another to allow the promotion of products which help to prevent work-related dermatitis. After all, with the provision of the right Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), skin protectants and training, the condition is easily preventable.

In addition to the efforts of the HSE and BSIF members, some 60 major industrial companies signed up to the campaign, providing a welcome helping hand to promote the cause.

Campaign achievements Now, at a time when the campaign deadline has been and gone, we have a chance to reflect on what has been achieved during this time. Due to the level of under-reportage (acknowledged by the HSE) combined with the fact that the campaign would likely increase reportage through enhanced awareness, it was decided that official statistics would be misleading in evaluating results.

However it has been noted that sales of skin protectants, gloves and other PPE products (designed to prevent skin contact with chemicals) have increased disproportionally against other safety products over the three-year period that the campaign has been in effect. It can therefore be presumed that the consistent and widely distributed message and guidance of the campaign has been listened to and both employers and employees have acted accordingly.

Despite the apparent success of the 'It's in your hands' campaign the BSIF is keen not to rest on its laurels. Dermatitis is, and will continue to be, a major issue affecting thousands of workers. It is vital that the condition continues to remain a high concern for employers, risk assessors and employees. Workrelated dermatitis can no longer be viewed as a 'minor' issue, its knock on effects can be felt across the company, resulting in absence and disruption over an extended period. Individuals must continue to be vigilant on the situation and ensure that the correct precautions are taken - after all, prevention is easier than a cure.

1. www.hse.gov.uk/skin/employ/dermatitis.htm