Occupational contact dermatitis and motor mechanics

Mechanics frequently come into contact with substances that can be damaging to the skin, whether they work on industrial machines, cars, trucks, buses or trains.  They frequently handle oils, greases, lubricants, fuels and engine fluids, detergents and strong solvents. This can often lead to the development of occupational contact dermatitis.

Occupational contact dermatitis is a skin condition caused by substances that come into contact with the skin at work and most often affects the hands.

There are three types of contact dermatitis:

  • Irritant contact dermatitis
  • Allergic contact dermatitis
  • Contact urticaria
 What causes occupational contact dermatitis?

Irritants are the most common cause of occupational contact dermatitis.  Continual wetting and drying of the skin, as well as handling particular substances will cause the skin to dry out, flake, split and crack.  This will occur more rapidly in people with sensitive skin, especially those with a history of eczema (even mild eczema as a child), asthma and hay fever.

Common irritants in the mechanical industry include:
Grease and mineral oils
Solvents and thinners
Fuels, transmission and brake fluids
Soaps and skin cleaners
Water, from washing hands frequently
Frequently drying hands with paper towels
Heat and sweating (especially if wearing water-proof style gloves) 

Allergy is less common. Allergic contact dermatitis can occur at any time in a mechanics’ career and often happens after irritant contact dermatitis has damaged the skin.  Allergic contact dermatitis will cause the skin to be very itchy, flake, split, crack and blister.  The skin will flare-up 4 to 24 hours after the particular chemical has been in contact with the skin.  The rash may take days or weeks to settle down again.  It is diagnosed by patch testing at a specialised clinic with a dermatologist.  Once this condition has developed there is no cure other than avoidance of the causative allergens. Prevention is the key.

Common allergens in the mechanical industry include:
Biocides in water based oils
Rubber accelerators found in tyres, shock absorbers and gloves
Surfactants and fragrances in hand cleaners
Nickel in tools and mechanical parts
Preservatives in cleansers and other products

Contact urticaria

Contact urticaria is a different type of allergy and occurs immediately (within 10-30 minutes) of the allergen touching the skin, and settles down an hour after contact ceases.  It is a reaction to specific proteins, which produce welts on the skin (hives), itching and swelling, and can also cause a runny nose, sneezing and asthma. Contact urticaria can ultimately develop into anaphylaxis, which is a potentially life-threatening condition.   Testing is by a special blood test or at a specialized allergy centre.  It is rare for mechanics to develop contact urticaria, but the wearing of latex, or medical style gloves may cause this.

How can mechanics prevent occupational contact dermatitis?

REGULAR use of Moisturiser

  • Feed the skin with the moisture it loses during a working day
  • A rich or thick, which contains no fragrances, is best
  • Always apply at the end of the day and before bed
  • A less greasy moisturising lotion may be more convenient to use during the day, as it does not take as much time to apply as a greasy moisturiser
  • Also apply at the beginning of the day and when on a break
  • Rub well into the hands and wrists, not forgetting between the fingers

Wear SUITABLE gloves for the job

Gloves are often difficult for mechanics to wear.  Glove manufacturers usually have a chart, which advises the correct glove to wear when handling particular chemicals; companies will supply charts free of charge e.g.:


A few glove tips:

  • For wet work and when using detergents or handling greasy equipment wear either PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or rubber gloves
  • To help reduce sweating, wear cotton gloves underneath PVC or rubber gloves
  • Latex gloves should generally be avoided
Important things to remember……
  • Limit the number of times hands are washed
  • Rings should not be worn at work, because chemicals, detergents and water get trapped under rings and cause dermatitis to develop.
  • Wear gloves from the start…Remember, if the skin is already damaged, there is a higher chance of developing dermatitis
  • Use a soap substitute, rather than solvents or harsh hand cleaners with sand in them to remove grease and oil.