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close this bookYour Health and Safety at Work: A Collection of Modules - Your Body at Work (ILO, 1996, 40 p.)
close this folderII. Routes of entry
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentA. Inhalation
View the documentB. Absorption
View the documentC. Ingestion

B. Absorption

Your skin is also a major route of entry for hazardous agents in the workplace. Diseases can develop when chemicals and other materials used at work come into contact with your skin.

Does skin protect you against occupational hazards?

Skin is an important protective cover for the body, but it cannot always protect you against workplace hazards. This is because chemicals can be absorbed (taken in) directly into the body through healthy skin. Once they are in the body, chemicals can be absorbed into the bloodstream and transported to target organs where they can have damaging effects.

What kinds of workplace hazards can cause occupational skin diseases and injuries?

There are many materials or conditions found in the workplace that can cause occupational skin diseases and injuries.

1. Mechanical work that involves friction, pressure and other forms of force (for workers using pneumatic riveters, chippers, drills and hammers) can cause calluses, blisters, nerve damage, cuts, etc.

2. Chemicals are a major source of occupational skin diseases. Hundreds of new chemicals are introduced into workplaces each year and some of them can cause skin irritations and allergic skin reactions. Some chemicals, such as strong acids and alkalis, will cause skin injuries almost immediately. Others, like diluted acids and alkalis, various solvents and soluble cutting fluids, will cause an effect only after you have been exposed to the chemical for several days.

Some chemicals can damage your skin, making it red, blistered, itchy or flaky. This condition is called dermatitis.

Some of the many chemicals that cause dermatitis are:

· strong acids (such as sulphuric acid);

· strong alkalis (such as caustic soda);

· all forms of mineral oil, including diesel, lubricating and fuel oils, solvents, thinners and degreasers such as paraffin, trichloroethylene, turpentine and petroleum products;

· tars, pitch and other coal tar products including phenols and cresols.

Dermatitis can affect workers who are exposed to the substance. The symptoms usually appear only when the chemical touches the skin and disappear when the worker stops having contact with the chemical.

Irritant injury (blistering caused by contact with toxic chemicals).

Another common occupational skin disease is contact dermatitis - a type of allergic reaction, just like asthma or hay fever. A worker may be allergic to a particular chemical and, once he or she becomes sensitized to that chemical, every time he or she comes into contact with it, dermatitis will result. Contact dermatitis does not necessarily only occur at the place where the chemical touches the skin - it often extends to other parts of the body. Contact dermatitis never occurs on the first exposure to a new chemical - it takes time to develop. However, once it develops, even exposure to a small amount can cause a severe skin reaction.

Some of the chemicals that cause contact dermatitis are:

· formaldehyde;

· nickel compounds;

· epoxy resins and catalysts used in the plastics industry;

· germicidal agents used in soap and other cleaners, especially hexachlorophene, bithionol and halogenated salicylanilides;

· chromates.

3. Skin injuries are also a common result of physical hazards such as:

· heat, for example burns often experienced by electric furnace operators, lead burners, welders, pipeline workers, road repair workers, roofers and tar plant workers who work with liquid tar;

· cold, for example frostbite, often experienced by workers working outside;

· electricity, for example burns from contact with short circuits or bare wires;

· sunlight, ultraviolet light, laser light, X-rays, etc.;

· high temperatures and high humidity levels, for example in a tropical work environment.

4. Biological hazards, such as bacteria, fungi, viruses or parasites, can cause skin infections. Workers who are likely to be exposed to biological hazards are:

· animal handlers and breeders
· food processors
· fishermen
· farmers
· animal hide handlers
· bakers
· bartenders
· kitchen personnel
· medical and dental personnel
· agriculture and livestock workers
· grain handlers
· long-shoremen
· silo workers
· dairy workers

Points to remember

1. Your skin is a major route of entry for hazardous substances in the workplace.

2. Chemicals can be absorbed through healthy skin into the bloodstream and transported to target organs where they can have damaging results.

3. Exposure to chemicals, physical hazards and biological hazards in the workplace can result in occupational diseases and allergic reactions.