Health and Safety ReportOctober 2010 - Volume 8, Issue 10

On Topic

Save Your Skinprint this article

You're covered in it and weighing about eight pounds, skin is the largest organ in our bodies. It's versatile, insulating, strong, waterproof - and it has to last a lifetime. Unfortunately people working in environments where they are exposed to chemicals and other harmful substances are at risk for skin diseases. Although the exact number of cases of occupational skin disease in Canada is unknown, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has estimated that workplace skin diseases account for 15%-20% of all reported occupational diseases in the United States, with estimated total annual costs (including lost workdays and lost productivity) up to $1 billion. Occupational contact dermatitis is by far the most common of all the skin disorders, accounting for 70% to 90%.

Contact dermatitis comes in two forms: irritant (80% of all occupational dermatitis) and allergic.

Irritant contact dermatitis is caused when your skin comes into direct contact with an irritating chemical or agent (e.g., alcohols, cutting oils and coolants, degreasers, disinfectants, petroleum products, detergents, and solvents) in your workplace. Wet work (repeated and/or prolonged contact with water) and other physical irritants such as friction and low humidity can also cause or contribute to occupational dermatitis.

One of the first signs of irritant contact dermatitis is often dry, red and itchy skin which may be followed by swelling, flaking, blistering, cracking and pain. These symptoms don't always occur all at once or in all cases. Dermatitis can develop quickly after contact with a strong irritant, or over a longer period from frequent contact with a mild irritant. The severity of the reaction depends on the kind of chemicals contained in the product used, the concentration of chemical, and the length and frequency of the exposure.

Allergic occupational contact dermatitis (or skin sensitization) occurs when you develop an allergy to a chemical or agent. Substances that are known to cause skin sensitization include cobalt, chromium and chromates, certain cosmetics and fragrances, epoxies, nickel, certain plants, preservatives, resins and acrylics. The signs and symptoms of skin sensitization are similar to irritant contact dermatitis, however sensitization tends to be a delayed reaction, developing over time, and the consequences are more severe. This is because once someone has developed an allergy, exposure to even tiny amounts of the allergen can trigger allergic contact dermatitis.

Who is most at risk

Although anyone can develop occupational contact dermatitis, workers at increased risk include agricultural workers, artists, beauticians, chemical/petroleum plant operators, cleaners, construction workers, cooks and caterers, hairdressers, health care workers, mechanics, metalworkers and vehicle assemblers.


Employers are required by the Canadian right-to-know legislation (WHMIS - Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System) to inform workers about the nature of substances they are exposed to and how to work with them safely. Chemicals or chemical products that are skin sensitizers, skin irritants or corrosive to the skin are covered by this legislation. Employers must assess the risks associated with exposure to these chemicals in the workplace and control exposure to eliminate or minimize their effects.

  • Where possible, consider using safer non-hazardous substance, and where it is not, reduce exposure by containing the substance at the source (e.g. by enclosing the process or using local exhaust ventilation). Handle the materials in ways that limit contact.

  • Practice good housekeeping to prevent the spread of contamination, including proper storage of substances, frequent disposal of waste, prompt removal of spills, and maintenance of equipment to keep it free of dust, dirt and drippings.

  • Practice good hand washing, however be aware that excessive exposure to water alone can dry out and irritate the skin. This effect worsens with the addition of soap and detergents or after exposure to solvents.

  • Avoid promoting the use of pre-work creams as 'barrier creams' as this may give workers a false sense of security and discourage them from taking the necessary preventative measures. These creams can moisturize the skin and help remove dirt, however they do not create an effective physical barrier.

  • Make after-work or conditioning creams readily available to workers to help prevent contact dermatitis from developing, and encourage workers to use them.

  • Leave personal protective equipment (PPE) as a measure of last resort. PPE is the least effective control measure and only protects well when it is selected, worn, and removed properly and either replaced or maintained regularly. Appropriate gloves and cotton liners should be provided and selected according to their chemical and physical resistance properties and their general suitability for the job tasks. Ensure that workers understand how to wear, maintain and remove and when to replace them.

  • Train workers about the risks to their health from skin exposure and the precautions needed to prevent disease. This training should include the correct use of any PPE, good skin care and what to do if they suspect they might have a skin problem.

When contamination occurs

If a skin contamination problem is identified, employers must implement measures to
adequately prevent or control the risk.

  • Relocating workers with contact dermatitis to a low exposure area or implementing exposure controls may help improve or resolve occupational contact dermatitis in some workers (especially if the problem is identified early), but is not always effective. In some cases, workers who develop allergic contact dermatitis need to be permanently removed from exposure to the chemical to which they are allergic.

  • The enhanced use of gloves or protective clothing may improve or prevent symptoms in some but not all workers who continue to be exposed to the substance causing the problem.

  • Conditioning creams can improve skin condition in workers who have developed occupational contact dermatitis.

As many as about one in ten patients continue to have persistent contact dermatitis in the very long term, even after removal from exposure. It is common for workers with contact dermatitis to leave or change their employment; however, most continue working in some capacity.

Learn to protect the skin you're in; you'll be wearing it for the rest of your life.

Further information

Irritant Contact Dermatitis, OSH Answers from CCOHS

Allergic Contact Dermatitis, OSH Answers from CCOHS

Guidelines on occupational contact dermatitis and urticaria, British Occupational Health Research Foundation

CCOHS' CHEMINFO database reviews the hazards, including skin irritation and skin sensitization, and control measures for a large number of workplace chemicals.

CCOHS also provides free WHMIS Classifications for chemicals reviewed in CHEMINFO.

Partner News

Show and Tellprint this article

Take Our Kids to Work™ on November 3, 2010

If you have ever wanted your teenager to walk a day in your shoes, here's your chance. On November 3rd more than 200,000 grade nine students across Canada will head off to work with their parents for Take Our Kids to Work™. This annual, national program from The Learning Partnership gives young people a chance to job shadow their parent or another adult at work for a day, to get an up close glimpse of work life. In addition, the entire community of parents, teachers and employers has an opportunity to get involved in the career development of young Canadians.

Something for Everyone

Students: Spending a day in the workplace can help highlight the importance of getting an education and provide practical insights into the skills required in today's workplaces. Students can explore career options in practical ways. They may even develop a better appreciation for their parents' roles in earning a living and supporting their families.

Employers: Take Our Kids to Work™ allows organizations to demonstrate their commitment to the education of young people as the workforce of the future, and highlight the range of jobs within the organization. Participation can also help enhance employee morale and boost community spirit and workplace pride among employees.

Parents: The program provides parents with an opportunity to share an experience with their child that can be a starting point for further career discussions. It's a chance to introduce their child to their workplace and co-workers. Parents can help enrich the experience for their child by making efforts to talk before, during and after the visit.

Keep the kids safe at work

It is important that young people receive information about health and safety prior to their workplace visit. They need to know and understand their rights and responsibilities for jobs they may hold now and in the future. Parents need this same information and to be aware of the work that their children are doing. They should ask questions about the health and safety concerns and how they are being addressed in the workplace.

Teachers should encourage all participants in the Take Our Kids to Work™ program to commit themselves to a safe day. Include on forms a section demonstrating that students have read and discussed materials on health and workplace safety before participating.

In preparation for Take Our Kids to Work™, workplaces should conduct an inspection prior to the day with a view to youth workplace safety. One of the first things employers should do on Take Our Kids to Work day is hold workplace orientations with the students that focus on health and safety issues relevant to that environment. Students should be supervised all day while they are at the workplace site and should only be allowed to undertake tasks and experiences for which they have been properly oriented. In the work environment, students should be encouraged to speak up about health and safety concerns, ask questions, and comment on situations they observed during the day.

More information

Visit The Learning Partnership website to register your participation, download resources and posters, and learn more about the Take Our Kids to Work program.

Young Workers Zone from CCOHS offers resources for young workers, parents, employers and teachers to help young people be healthy and safe at work. Watch for the Teaching Tools Resource Manual coming soon.

Listen to the free podcast Keeping Young Workers Safe.
Length: 19 minutes


Navigating Return to Workprint this article

Return to work (RTW) can be complex, often involving medical, psychological, social and workplace issues. To offer practical perspectives and the latest findings from research reviews on various aspects of RTW, CCOHS is presenting two webinars with the Institute for Work and Health (IWH): Best RTW Practices for Workers with Musculoskeletal and Mental Health Conditions and A Guide to Challenging Return-to-Work Situations.

Best RTW Practices for Workers with Musculoskeletal and Mental Health Conditions

Presented by Dr. Renée-Louise Franche

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

2:00 pm - 3:30 pm EST

This webinar will bring you up-to-date on best practices for the most effective workplace RTW programs for injured or ill workers, based on the latest research evidence.

Dr. Renée-Louise Franche, one of Canada's leading RTW researchers, will present findings from two systematic research reviews of RTW programs. These reviews address two common conditions accounting for most work disability costs: musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), and mental health conditions. The reviews were conducted at the IWH in Ontario, and at the Occupational Health and Safety Agency for Healthcare in British Columbia.

The first review on MSDs led to a guide, the Seven Principles for Successful Return to Work. The most recent review on mental health resulted in a guide called Best Practices for Return-to-Work/ Stay-at-Work Interventions for Workers with Mental Health Conditions.

This webinar will be especially of interest to disability managers/return-to-work professionals, health and safety professionals, human resources professionals, health-care professionals treating injured workers, insurers and policy-makers, managers and business owners.

A Guide to Challenging Return-to-Work Situations

Presented by Dr. Ellen MacEachen, PhD, IWH

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

1:00 pm - 2:30 pm EST

In this 90-minute webinar, you'll gain an understanding of the challenges that some injured workers face in returning to work, which can result in long-term workers' compensation claims. The webinar will also cover some practical solutions to prevent these problems.

This webinar is based on a study on complex return to work problems by Dr. Ellen MacEachen and colleagues at the IWH. The study, which involved in-depth interviews with injured workers, service providers, insurers and workplace personnel, led to the development of a practical guide called Red Flags/Green Lights: A Guide to Identifying and Solving Return-to-Work Problems.

The webinar will be especially useful to health and safety professionals, human resources professionals, healthcare professionals treating injured workers, managers, and business owners.

Earn Points

Continuing education points have been applied for. Confirmed to date:

  • ABIH (American Board of Industrial Hygiene) = 0.25 Safety CM points each webinar

  • OKA (Ontario Kinesiology Association) = 2 primary category points each webinar

Find out more about the webinars and how to register:

Best RTW Practices for Workers with Musculoskeletal and Mental Health Conditions

A Guide to Challenging Return-to-Work Situations

Download the free guides:

Red Flags/Green Lights: A Guide to Identifying and Solving Return-to-Work Problems, IWH

Seven Principles for Successful Return to Work, IWH

Last Word.

You're Invited to Weigh Inprint this article

Add your voice to the discussion started at Forum III on important health and safety issues

In March 2010, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) hosted Forum III, a tripartite, national event to discuss the role leadership and responsibility play in improving and building safer and healthier workplaces.

With Leading Workplace Change as the theme, this two-day event in Gatineau brought representatives from Canadian, provincial and territorial governments, employers and labour organizations together with subject experts to share their knowledge, perspectives and collective experience around effective leadership and its impact on workplace health and safety.

Forum III delegates participated in discussions in each of the four primary subject areas on the Leading Workplace Change theme: leadership, participatory ergonomics, workplace violence, and generational diversity.

Now it's your turn. CCOHS is inviting Canadians to continue the dialogue by taking their web survey and providing feedback on the important issues that emerged from the Forum. The survey results will be shared this winter on the CCOHS website.

Take the survey on leading workplace change.

Read the highlights from Forum III. (PDF)

Tell us what you think.
We welcome your feedback and story ideas.

Connect with us.

The Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), provides information, advice, and resources that help support a safe and healthy work environment and the total well being of workers.

You can unsubscribe at any time. If you have been sent this newsletter by a friend, why not subscribe yourself?

Concerned about privacy? We don’t sell or share your personal information. See our Privacy Policy.

CCOHS 135 Hunter St. E., Hamilton, ON L8N 1M5

© 2022, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety