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Controlling skin hazards

23 January 2013

Skin disease is reported to be one of the top three causes of work-related illness in Europe. Jenn Raymond explains some of the skin hazards that can be encountered, the associated legislation and some of the protective clo

Skin disease is reported to be one of the top three causes of work-related illness in Europe. Jenn Raymond explains some of the skin hazards that can be encountered, the associated legislation and some of the protective clothing available

As with any other risk to the health of workers, there is legislation that covers the control of skin hazards at work.

Principally, these are the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations and the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at Work Regulations.

The Health and Safety at Work Act sets out responsibilities for both the employer and their employees. Identification and subsequent prevention or adequate control of hazards is the main requirement of the legislation and the employer's duties include ensuring that hazardous substances are used in accordance with proper safety systems and procedures. The Act also requires employers to provide free PPE where it is deemed necessary.

The COSHH regulations apply where hazardous substances exist in the workplace. The regulations require employers to identify hazards and assess the risk of exposure to any hazards and prevent or adequately control exposure and monitor those controls. They also require employers to inform, instruct and train the workforce about the potential consequences of exposure and the precautions that need to be taken.

The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations consider the design, construction, testing and certification of PPE and, where appropriate, its cleaning, maintenance, use and storage.

Skin hazards Skin hazards can be posed both by substances used in work processes or by substances generated by them. Hazardous substances can be naturally occurring, biological or man-made and there are various sources of information available to help identify them. A useful source of information is the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) 'Skin at Work' website (www.hse.gov.uk/skin) while the HSE's publication 'EH40/2005 Workplace Exposure Limits' identifies substances that may damage skin with an "Sk" notation.

When considering the risk of exposure, the question of who might be harmed, and how, needs to be assessed, as well as how much of a substance is used, how long for, what parts of the worker's body are in contact with the substance and for what duration. There are five main groups of possible health effects to skin: burns, Irritant Contact Dermatitis (ICD), Allergic Contact Dermatitis (ACD), other skin diseases such as urticaria (a short-term reaction to contact), acne and skin cancer, and systemic diseases caused when harmful substances pass through the skin resulting in diseases of the heart, kidneys, circulatory and nervous systems or poisoning.

Burns, which cause severe skin damage and may lead to scarring, can occur after brief contact with a corrosive substance, which could include wet cement, strong acids and strong alkalis. ICD can develop after regular contact with mild irritants or through prolonged contact with water.

Symptoms include dry, red or itchy skin, swelling, flaking, blistering, cracking and pain. Repeated contact can lead to hyperirritability, where inflammation occurs more quickly than normal. ACD is an immunological response to a sensitising substance, such as latex. Symptoms are similar to ICD but once a person has developed an allergy, just a tiny amount of that substance will trigger a reaction.

Choosing the right protection PPE should be regarded as the last resort when all other measures have been taken but a risk of exposure still remains.

Considerations when choosing PPE for skin hazards include what parts of the body are exposed - hands or whole body - and the nature of exposure, whether immersion, splash or spray. Potential skin hazards can vary across industry sectors, so it is important to be aware of the different types of clothing available to protect workers, keep them comfortable and meet the legal requirements for PPE in the working environment.

EN 340 is the high level standard for protective clothing, which specifies general requirements such as material, labelling, sizing and weight that apply to different types of clothing. In relation to protective coveralls, it requires that products also comply with certain 'type' standards, meaning the type of protection required, which could be gas, non-gas, jet, spray, particle or limited splash. Each type of protective clothing has its own standard and/or test method and products can be approved to more than one standard and type.

Choice of material is another important factor which must be taken into account when selecting protective coveralls - the level of chemical protection offered by a material is generally tested in three ways: penetration, permeation and repellency.

Training should follow product selection, with employees receiving information on why the PPE is needed, what its limitations are and how to wear it correctly. In the case of skin hazards there should also be an explanation of potential health effects and any warning signs to look out for.

Jenn Raymond is technical service engineer at 3M. The company will be exhibiting at Health & Safety North on Stand 76