Our hands are pretty tough characters. Especially considering what we ask them to do. From copper smelters to food processing plants to farms and laboratories, every day, in almost every business and industry, hands are exposed to hundreds of potential skin hazards.

These hazards can cause disabling dermatitis as well as cuts, abrasions, and bruises. According to the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, allergic and contact dermatitis is the major cause of occupational skin diseases, which account for 15 to 20 percent of all reported occupational diseases. Symptoms can include itching, dryness, cracking, boils, blisters, bumps, de-pigmentation, redness and rashes. Hands, wrists, and forearms are by far the most frequent skin areas that show signs of industrial dermatitis.

Causes of hand dermatitis

Dermatitis can be caused by a wide variety of workplace environments. While chemical contact is the most obvious, other workplace hazards such as heat, cold, friction, water, bacteria, and plants are major contributors to hand dermatitis.

Chemicals cause skin reactions either by direct contact, such as with an acid, or as a result of allergy or sensitization to a specific chemical. Sensitization is the result of long-term exposure that causes the body to produce an “allergic” reaction to further exposure. Allergic contact dermatitis is the result of changes in the cellular immune response.

Chemicals that sensitize easily are usually fat soluble and reactive with tissue proteins. For allergic contact dermatitis to occur, a period of five to seven days or more is required for incubation. After the initial “sensitization,” the skin may show signs of dermatitis within a period of 24 hours after future contact.

Mechanical causes, such as friction, can produce calluses, blisters, abrasions and fungus site development. Pressure can create bony projections, skin atrophy, and dead skin tissue. Calluses and fissures can be produced by repetitive hand motion and by the use of certain types of tools.

Physical agents, such as heat and cold, can also contribute to dermatitis. Sweat-related hand dermatitis can be caused when using gloves. Radiation factors can cause skin overgrowth, surface burns, photosensitivities, and skin cancer. Frostbite, especially of the hands, can be severe enough to destroy the deeper tissues of the skin.

Biological agents, including plants, viruses, bacteria, fungus, and other parasites may attack the skin and sometimes produce whole-body disease as well. Generally, unbroken skin provides protection from most parasites and bacteria. However, cuts or abrasions provide an easy access to the unprotected sub-layers of the skin.

Other factors involved in contact or sensitivity dermatitis include cleanliness, age, sex, skin type, other skin problems, and history of other allergies. Susceptibility to irritants is generally greater in women than men because they tend to have drier skin and a slightly higher pH. Women may also have more exposure to chemicals at home, such as soaps and cleaning agents that may lower the threshold of skin irritation. Poor hand hygiene and wearing wet or soiled gloves also increases the chance of dermatitis development. People with a history of hay fever, sinusitis, or asthma are also generally more susceptible to dermatitis problems.

Prevention & control

As with any workplace hazard, prevention starts with engineering and environmental controls. Properly maintained, totally enclosed systems will prevent skin exposure to chemical and mechanical sources of hand dermatitis.

Proper use of gloves means more than just slipping on any pair that’s handy. Gloves can become totally ineffective if a worker is not trained in how to choose the correct type, prevent glove damage, recognize the need for replacement, or prevent materials from entering through the cuff of the glove.

Isolate areas that have potential dermatitis hazards from other work areas to help ensure that only workers who are trained in recognition and prevention are exposed. Make sure your employees are trained to understand and recognize hand dermatitis hazards, to immediately report symptoms, and to get medical attention for cuts, scrapes, and rashes. Ensure that adequate hygiene facilities and equipment are located in the immediate vicinity of dermatitis hazard work areas.

Sidebar: Skin care checklist

  • Don’t wash hands with solvents, harsh soaps, or abrasives

  • Clean and bandage all cuts and abrasions

  • Immediately remove any imbedded foreign material

  • Wash immediately after using any chemical

  • Don’t rely on barrier creams alone

  • Wear clean, dry gloves

  • Don’t ignore skin rashes – get an immediate medical evaluation

  • Don’t use chlorine bleach on clothing with exposed elastic