Managing Skin Exposure Risks at Work

Employers have legal duties to assess the health risks

Posted on: 25/11/2015   By: Lee Rance

There are many materials or substances out there that can affect the skin or can pass through the skin and cause diseases elsewhere in the body. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) requires employers to assess the risks involved in all processes that involve hazardous substances. They are required to provide and maintain adequate control measures, provide information, instruction and training and in some cases health surveillance. The HSE guidance document (HSG262) has detailed information about how to manage the risks from skin exposure.

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The types of health problems that can occur from skin exposure are burns, irritant contact dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis and other skin diseases such as urticaria, acne and skin cancer. Most of those conditions occur when there is direct contact with the hazardous substance but there are also substances that can be absorbed through the skin and affect other parts of the body e.g. benzene can affect the blood, carbon sulphide can affect the heart and carbon tetrachloride can affect the kidneys. For more information about the aspects of occupational skin disease read the HSE guidance document (MS24).

The COSHH assessments will identify the hazards and risks involved with using any hazardous substances and what measures are needed to control the risks and ultimately protect the employees. These measures are usually addressed in the following order:

  • Avoid or reduce contact with materials that cause skin/systemic problems.
  • Protect the skin.
  • Check for early signs of disease.

‘Avoid’ is the most effective control and this could mean changing the process e.g. removing paint by scraping instead of using solvents. Avoid could also mean substituting the product for something less harmful. Introducing engineering controls e.g. using partial enclosure with some form of local exhaust ventilation (LEV). Increasing the safe working distance between the skin and substance by using tools and equipment. Avoid or reduce contact by using procedural controls e.g. barriers to prevent access to areas where there is a risk, spillage controls to prevent the spread of spills.

‘Protect’ the skin by using personal protective equipment can be an effective control however there are limitations:

  • it can only protect the wearer;
  • it has to be the right material and the right size;
  • it has to be put on, worn and taken off properly;
  • it may limit the wearer’s mobility;
  • its continued effectiveness will depend on proper cleaning, maintenance, training and supervision.

‘Check’ refers to health surveillance. Where employees are exposed to hazardous substances, employers must ensure that, where appropriate, employees are under suitable health surveillance. Employees are encouraged to regularly check their own skin but a ‘responsible person’ should periodically carry out skin checks. A ‘responsible person’ can be an employee provided with suitable training or a medical professional. They will help identify the early signs dermatitis and other skin problems. They can also show whether there are any lapses in control and the need for a reassessment of the control strategy.

If you would like more information on managing skin exposure risk at work then visit the HSE’s ‘skin at work’ web pages.

Until next time.

Lee Rance