In the courts
Workers at a company premises in Bristol were exposed to hazardous substances over a four-year period leading to the onset of a disease called ‘contact dermatitis’. One employee suffered four years of his skin blistering, cracking, splitting and weeping because of this rash.
The company was fined a total of £100,000 and ordered to pay £30,000 costs. They were fined £30,000 for breaching The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, and £10,000 for 6 separate breaches of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations for not making adequate risk assessments, not preventing or controlling exposure of employees to chemicals, and for not providing any ‘health surveillance’ of employees at-risk. They were also fined £10,000 for not reporting a case of allergic ‘contact dermatitis’.
Dermatitis may be caused by the skin coming into contact with a substance that irritates it (an irritant). This is known as ‘contact dermatitis’ and is characterised by skin that’s red, inflamed and cracked. Many irritants that cause it are found at work and include oils, greases, latex/rubber, soaps and cleaners. How quickly dermatitis develops depends on the strength of the substance and how long/frequently it comes into contact with the skin. The Health & Safety Executive estimates that two thirds of the 66,000 cases of skin diseases each year have led to dermatitis, making ‘contact dermatitis’ is the most common type of occupational skin disease.
To reduce the chances of occurrence, work through the following precautions in descending order:
- Eliminate. Prevent handling the product directly thus preventing skin contact.
- Substitute. Look to substitute the product, e.g. introduce nitrile gloves instead of latex ones
- Good Hygiene. Provide and insist on the use of after work creams to ensure moisture is put back in then skin.
- PPE. Issue personal protective equipment, such as eye protection and gloves and ensure they are worn.
Manage the problem.
Carry out monthly health surveillance on all employees deemed to be at risk from ‘contact dermatitis’. Please request a copy of our health surveillance check sheet by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If a case of ‘contact dermatitis’ does occur – investigate. The investigation will reveal the exact cause of the skin problem. If so, the employee should cease use of the substance until satisfactory control measures are introduced. Unless the rash is minor, they should also see their GP or an occupational health advisor (OHA) for treatment.
Tip 1. Don’t assume that the skin rash is work related – neither should you let the employee insist that it is. It may be triggered by a new product they are using at home, so do ask about these.
Tip 2. Provide information and training to staff on skin management. This should include the importance of washing clean after use, how to look after skin and how to spot any problems. (Free HSE Poster – available in free guidance section of website)