Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Dermatitis Control

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Dermatitis Control

Article excerpt

Dermatitis Control

When safety managers and occupational health nurses are confronted with a problem of industrial dermatitis, a typical step is to get help from an occupational health specialist or a physician with experience in industrial dermatology.

The medical approach may treat the effect, but it may not get at the cause of the problem. In order to do that, the safety manager should consider enlisting the services of an industrial hygienist. Working with occupational health nurses and physicians, the industrial hygienist's investigative skills can be used effectively, working back upstream with the nurse and dermatologist to find the cause of the problem.

Despite newly developed pharmaceuticals and modern treatment methods, cases of work-related skin diseases are on the upswing. In 1989, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupational skin disease was the second leading cause of health-oriented disabling conditions for American workers.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the safety research arm of the federal government, estimates that there may be as many as 1,650,000 occupational skin disease cases occurring every year in the U.S. work environmental. Jobs in manufacturing and agriculture are the most vulnerable to skin infections.

A 1988 joint study by NIOSH and the American Schools of Public Health on "A Proposed National Strategy for the Prevention of Dermatological Conditions" suggested, through field investigations, that 80 percent of the cases of contact dermatitis are due to skin irritations - prolonged or repeated exposure to chemical or physical substances that injure the tissue and cause inflammation. That same study indicated that allergic contact was causing most of the remaining cases, triggered in a sensitized worker by relatively small amounts of the irritant.

Seeking Causes

Prompt, correct medical treatment of the skin irritations can help control medical costs and lost time from the job. Finding the cause so that the incident is not repeated or preventing the dermatitis from spreading to other employees is equally as important for long-term control of the problem.

Medically treating the symptoms of dermatitis may be the easier part of the program; finding the cause is not always so easy.

"The industrial hygienist can be of assistance to the physician and nurse in identifying sources of dermatitis or means of contact out on the plant floor," says Robert E. Sheriff, CIH, president of Atlantic Environmental Consultants, Dover, N.J., and president of the American Industrial Hygiene Assn. (AIHA). He points out that the doctor and nurse, the medical team, are frequently looked on as treaters, while the industrial hygienist becomes the preventer.

"One of the first things you have to ask when trying to determine the cause of dermatitis is what is new or changed - new chemicals in the workplace, changed processes, a revised formula for a material, modified ventilation systems, or personal protective equipment. All may be clues to finding the cause," says Joseph J. Fater, CIH, manager of industrial hygiene at Natlsco Inc., a Long Grove, Ill., loss control consulting firm.

"Too often, plant management gets preoccupied with an individual case and how to treat it. That's important, but even more important is trying to identify causes. Dermatitis cases can increase quickly and sometimes numerous workers on the same job or in the same work area are affected," Fater emphasizes.

By definition, dermatitis is an inflammation of the skin with the removal of the natural oils. Contact with chemical agents or a trauma to the skin surface can also result in onset of the problem. The symptoms frequently are dry, red, itching skin or cracking of the skin surface. Preexisting allergies and irritations can also become inflamed in the workplace, resulting in a work-related illness. …

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