Skin serves as a protective barrier between the body and its outside environment. Being the first line of defense of our body, our skin is exposed to many potential risks, some of which may stem from our daily job duties.
What are Occupational Skin Diseases (OSD)?
Occupational skin diseases (OSD) are skin conditions that occur as a result of skin exposure to certain on-the-job chemical substances and/or work specific environmental factors. OSDs are a common occurrence. They are the second largest group of work-related illnesses, accounting for about 15–20% of all on-the-job illnesses.
OSDs can include conditions such as contact dermatitis, infections, skin injuries, and cancer. Most OSDs occur in workers who are employed in manufacturing, agriculture, construction, mining, healthcare, food service, auto repair, cosmetology, and maritime industries.
Below, you will find an overview of some common work-related skin conditions, risk factors, and tips for prevention:
Chemicals and Irritants
Substances in the workplace that may contribute to allergic reactions and irritation of the skin, also known as contact dermatitis, include cement, rubber, dyes, metals, fiberglass, foods, spices, and latex.
Contact dermatitis is a kind of eczema and is the most common occupational skin condition. Eczema appears as distinct pink or red rash with dry, scaly, and cracked skin that is often itchy, tender, or burning. Contact dermatitis may also appear as bumps or blisters, sometimes with oozing or crusting.
To prevent contact dermatitis, it is necessary to identify the chemical(s) that is causing the problem and to avoid any further contact with it. A healthcare provider may help you determine the chemical(s) responsible for your skin reaction through allergy testing if it is not obvious.
Another common type of OSD is caused by trauma to the skin. Acute trauma may consist of burns, bruises, cuts, wounds, and lacerations while repeated injury may result in corns, calluses, and scarring.
Some of the strategies to avoid mechanical trauma are:
- Know potential hazards of your occupation or worksite
- Know your workplace’s safety protocols
- Prevent distraction around potentially hazardous tasks, equipment, or locations
- Get sufficient sleep
- Don’t abuse or misuse alcohol and drugs
- Ask for help when necessary
Dry and Humid Environments
Working in environments with low humidity may result in skin chapping and fissures. This in turn may lead to eczema and infections.
Humid or wet conditions may lead to acne, miliaria (sweat rash), intertrigo (rash between the skin folds), and skin maceration. Macerated skin can vary by level of exposure. For example, a mild version of skin maceration is when you are in a bath for too long and your fingers look wrinkly. If you have a more constant exposure to moisture, damage can occur at the cellular level. Damaged or macerated skin is then susceptible to fungal or bacterial infections.
The best prevention for dry environments is to keep skin moist by using moisturizing creams, lotions, and lip balm. In humid or wet conditions, on the other hand, the effort should be directed at minimizing the time of contact between your skin and humidity or sweat. And remember, regardless whether your warm environment is dry or humid, staying hydrated is of the utmost importance.
Exposure of skin to the cold may show up as frostbite, chilblains (sores, bumps, red patches), and cold urticaria (hives). Prevention with proper clothing and gear are essential for everyone working in the cold.
Prolonged skin exposure to UV radiation from the sun without proper protection may result in a host of skin conditions from sunburns to skin cancer. Employers can implement multiple strategies to mitigate risk of skin damage from UV exposure for outdoor workers.
Employees working in medical, airspace, mining, nuclear and research fields should always be aware of any sources of ionizing radiation. Along with other health problems, excess exposure to ionizing radiation may cause radiation dermatitis and radiation-induced skin cancer. The best strategy here is to avoid any possible exposures.
Can OSDs be Eliminated?
Eliminating all potential risks for occupational skin diseases is nearly impossible for almost any profession. However, preventing work-related skin issues with knowledge and awareness is both possible and important. Taking care of our skin is also an ongoing effort, and not just an effort to be made at home, the beauty salon, or a spa, but also in the workplace.
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, “Dermatitis, Allergic Contact,” September 1, 2016, https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/diseases/allergic_derm.html
Safety + Health, “Occupational skin diseases: More common than you think,” January 29, 2017, https://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/15195-occupational-skin-diseases-more-common-than-you-think
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “National Occupational Research Agenda,” June 6, 2014, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/96-115/diseas.html The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “Skin Exposures and Effects,” July 2, 2013, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/skin/default.html