For people who work in hotels, restaurants or catering facilities, exposure to certain common hazards means the body’s first line of defence — the skin — is under attack. The result can be an outright war on the skin cells, or in more correct terms, occupational contact dermatitis.
This condition is unsightly, uncomfortable and often unbearable. It is a chronic rash, usually on the hands, that itches, stings, burns, flakes, cracks, swells, blisters and bleeds.
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) says there are 1,000 compensation claims reported for contact dermatitis in Ontario alone. In some areas of the United States, skin disorders are reported to comprise more than 35 per cent of all work-related diseases.
Occupational dermatitis is more common in people with other skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema, and especially common among those who work with irritating chemicals. It can be made worse by factors including frequent hand washing and exposure to chemicals. Too much exposure to these irritants breaks down the skin’s natural protective barrier.
Contact dermatitis comes in two unappealing varieties: irritant and allergic. According to CCOHS, irritant contact dermatitis can develop after a short, heavy exposure or a repeated or prolonged, low exposure to a substance. Symptoms can make their first appearance in different ways: immediate blisters from accidentally touching a strong substance or redness after contact with a mild substance. Sometimes the initial damage doesn’t show but the inner layer of the skin thickens.
Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when the worker develops sensitivity to a substance. It can affect other places on the body that did not come in contact with the irritant. Once the person is allergic to the substance and is exposed to that substance again, it can take 12 to 72 hours for a skin reaction to develop, but its consequences are more severe than with irritant contact dermatitis. symptoms.
Enemies of the skin
Carola Hicks, CEO of Workplace Safety Group in St. Catharines, Ont., says the most common culprits affecting the skin in the food service industry are chemicals, moisture, spicy foods, physical injury and raw foods.
Chemicals: Soaps, detergents and solvents used for cleaning may cause irritant dermatitis, the most common form of contact dermatitis.
Moisture: Constantly wet hands are more prone to contact dermatitis as the irritant can enter the body by absorption. As wonderful and waterproof skin is, ongoing wet work can affect it.
Spicy food: Herbs and spices have been reported to cause contact dermatitis, Hicks says. Although skin allergies to spices are relatively rare, a recent Finnish study reported five workers had developed allergies to garlic, cinnamon, ginger, allspice and clove. The same patients also had allergic patch test reactions to tomatoes, lettuce and carrots.
Physical injury: Physical injury, such as knife cuts, allow irritants to enter the skin. Workers in meat processing, for example, who use sharp knives to cut meat that is inevitably wet and slippery, are at risk of irritants entering their skin through cuts.
Raw food: Unlike chemicals that come in a bottle and may be labeled “skin irritant,” raw produce doesn’t come with a warning label or MSDS. A typical MSDS for garlic oil, however, says it is “hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant)” and recommends washing immediately after contact with skin, with plenty of running water and non-abrasive soap. An MSDS for onion oil gives very similar warnings.
An ounce of prevention
Contact dermatitis can be managed, but not cured. Workers should therefore aim to preserve the skin’s protective barrier so it can continue to do its job of keeping irritants out. Here are the most commonly recommended prevention tips:
Stick to gentle cleansers and moisturize often. Even after the symptoms have cleared up, continue diligent moisturizing. Dermatologists recommend using petroleum jelly because it has few ingredients and doesn’t sting or irritate open areas; it also holds in the skin’s natural moisture and provides a protective barrier to keep irritants out.
Scratching makes dermatitis worse. If skin is itchy, try a cold compress instead. Keep fingernails short.
Avoid irritant substances. “Avoid, as far as reasonably possible, contact with irritants. Frequent handwashing with copious amounts of water help reduce or dilute, if not eliminate, triggers,” Hicks says.
Protect the skin. While there is no substitute for preventing exposure altogether, the alternative is to use barrier cream, wear non-latex gloves, or cotton gloves, under vinyl gloves. Hicks cautions, however, barrier creams provide only limited protection against acidic and alkaline irritants in food handling. There is also food safety issues. “A transfer of ingredients to the food is inevitable even when claims are made that foodstuffs will not be tainted,” she says.
An employer’s overall health and safety program should include a skin care management program that goes beyond just gloves and skin care products, but formally addresses the problem through employee education and awareness campaigns, engineering and administrative controls.