Skin Care at Work: The Construction Industry
Occupational contact dermatitis is a common condition affecting people working in the construction industry, particularly causing hand dermatitis. This industry is made up of a diverse range of occupations including:
- Floor layers and finishers
- Cabinet makers
- Brick layers
- Roof, wall and floor tilers
Occupational contact dermatitis is caused by substances that come into contact with the skin at work and includes irritant and allergic contact dermatitis. Occasionally, it may also involve the exposed skin of the arms, face and legs of construction workers.
Irritants in the construction industry
Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common cause of occupational contact dermatitis. Continual wetting and drying of the skin, as well as handling some particular substances will cause the skin to dry out, flake, split and crack. This will occur more commonly in people with sensitive skin, especially those with a history of eczema (even if only mild eczema as a baby), and also of asthma, or hay fever.
|Common irritants in the construction industry include:
|Water, including washing hands frequently
|Abrasive hand cleaners
|Glues and adhesives, particularly 2 pack products
|Putty and sealants
|Heat and sweating
|Friction, from using machinery
Allergy in the construction industry
Allergic contact dermatitis is fortunately less common than irritant contact dermatitis in the construction industry. It can occur at any time in a construction worker’s career and often happens after irritant contact dermatitis has damaged the skin. Whether a worker develops allergic contact dermatitis or not relates to exposure to particular allergenic chemicals, the concentration of the chemical and the individual’s susceptibility. Epoxy resins in floor coatings and adhesives are notorious skin allergens in this industry.
Allergic contact dermatitis often looks similar to irritant contact dermatitis, causing rashes on the hands and sometimes other areas as well. These rashes are usually red, scaly, itchy and may involve blisters. The skin will flare between 4 to 24 hours after the chemical has been in contact with the skin, so it may be difficult to know which chemical has caused the reaction. The rash may then take days or weeks to settle down again. This condition is diagnosed by specialized patch testing performed by dermatologists.
Once contact allergy has developed there is no way to desensitize the worker to the substance that they have become allergic to. The substances causing the allergy must therefore be avoided for life, to prevent the skin from developing contact dermatitis. Prevention is the key.
|Common allergens in the construction industry include:
|Epoxy resin and hardeners
|Chromate in cement
|Formaldehyde resins in the manufacture of chipboard and medium density fibreboard (MDF)
|Rubber chemicals used in glove manufacture
|Chemicals used in paints, stains and varnishes
|Wood rosin (colophony) found in pine and other timbers
|Isocyanates in polyurethane glues and coatings
Caring for your skin
To prevent allergic contact dermatitis, skin exposure to sensitizing chemicals must be avoided. To prevent irritant contact dermatitis, it is important to look after your skin.
The following are easy ways to do that:
- Moisturise the skin regularly, at the start and end of the working day and before bed
- A greasy, fragrance-free moisturizer is best
- Rub the cream well into hands and wrists, not forgetting between the fingers
- Wear suitable gloves for the job, as some substances can penetrate through gloves
- Detailed and specific information is available from safety equipment suppliers and is helpful for advising about the right glove to protect against particular substances. Most glove manufacturers have chemical resistance charts, which are supplied free of charge and on their websites
- Certain nitrile and nitrile butatoluene gloves are also effective against protection from epoxy resin. The Sol-Vex TM glove by Ansell is effective in protecting hands against epoxy resins, paints and other chemicals. In addition, the Ansell Barrier TM glove is also effective. For more information visit ansellchemsafe.com
- Another alternative is the SilverSheild 4H glove (a Danish product) for protection against epoxy resin and polyurethanes. These gloves are not available in Australia but can be obtained from the manufacturer in Denmark.
- Wear waterproof gloves for wet work
- Rubber gloves and PVC (polyvinyl chloride) gloves are useful to protect against many other chemicals
- Powdered latex gloves may contribute to latex allergy in some people with damaged skin. If latex gloves need to be worn, powder-free are preferred
- If wearing gloves for a long period of time, wear cotton gloves underneath to reduce sweating. You may need to change them half way through the day. Launder them regularly.
- Using a moisturizer or barrier cream before work makes cleaning the skin easier at the end of the day
- Use commercial cleansers to clean up with, rather than solvents or abrasive hand cleaners
- If your skin is already damaged use a soap substitute to clean up with and rinse off well
- Remember, once the skin is damaged with dermatitis, it increases the chance of developing further problems
- Never work with wet feet for long periods of time. Make sure that you wear waterproof boots, or if sweating is a problem, change your socks midway through your shift
- If possible, avoid direct skin contact with leather in hot weather
- If you have skin problems, see your local doctor
|Case Study: An example of a work-related skin problem in a construction worker
John is 25 years old and has been working as a bricklayer for one year. He initially found that his hands became very dry and rough after mixing cement (irritant contact dermatitis). After a few months he noticed they were itchy and had tiny fluid filled bubbles. He began to wear leather bricklaying gloves but he found that his hands continued to get worse even when wearing them. Then he started to get a rash on his feet as well. John did notice that his hands improved when on holidays. John finally decided to go to the doctor. He was told to use some creams. When this did not work, he was referred to a dermatologist. After patch testing it was found that John has allergic contact dermatitis to chromate, which is found in cement. Chromate is a chemical which is also used in the tanning process of leather and other hides and so was also present in his gloves and work boots.
Unfortunately John’s hands took a long time to heal. He could not avoid chromate at work, so he gave up his work as a bricklayer. He can never wear anything made of leather without getting a rash.
What lessons can we learn from John’s case?
If John looked after his skin when he first became a bricklayer, that is; moisturized regularly and worn the bricklayers’ gloves – he may have prevented the irritant contact dermatitis developing. Because John’s hands were damaged by the harsh irritants, the risk of becoming allergic to chromate became much higher. This is because the cement had the opportunity to penetrate into the cracks in his skin.