Contact dermatitis is an inflammation of the skin resulting from a worker coming into contact with a substance.

There are two forms of contact dermatitis:

  • irritant contact dermatitis arises from contact with chemical, physical or biological agents that damage the skin by direct action and in the area of contact
  • allergic contact dermatitis occurs when a person becomes allergic, or ‘sensitised’, to small amounts of a substance.

Many chemicals used in industry can cause a sudden and very strong reaction when they come into contact with bare skin.

Substances which can cause contact dermatitis, and which are common in many workplaces, include:

  • acids
  • alkalis
  • oils
  • solvents
  • petroleum products
  • soaps and detergents.

Manufactured products containing chemicals which may affect the skin include:

  • cement
  • synthetic rubber
  • plastics
  • fibreglass
  • resins
  • glue
  • hair dyes, perm solution, bleach.

Metal objects containing nickel and chromium (both used in electroplating) can cause contact dermatitis when handled. When worn close to the skin, jewellery may also cause contact dermatitis.

Natural plant and animal products may cause a skin reaction in some people. Sawdust from some wood varieties and natural oils used in perfume are some of the plant products that may cause a skin reaction.

Sometimes the chemicals used in the processing of natural products will be the cause of the problem (eg dyes used on leather, fur, wool and cotton; preservatives used in cosmetics, creams and ointments).

However, these substances will not affect everyone who comes into contact with them.

Risk control measures

Recommended risk control measures include the following:

  • find out precisely which substance is causing contact dermatitis in your work area
    • refer to the Safety Data Sheet (SDS)
  • if possible, remove the irritating substance from the work area and replace it with a less hazardous substance
  • keep the work area clean
  • avoid spills, splashes and sprays of the substance and clean them up promptly if they occur
  • wash hands with mild soap and water, and make sure that hands are dried thoroughly
  • use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
    • select the correct PPE for the task (eg the correct gloves for the specific chemical substance used - refer to the SDS)
    • instruct the worker on the correct use and maintenance of the PPE
  • use barrier creams as an alternative to PPE (if PPE cannot be worn for a particular reason)
    • barrier creams applied before work will make it easier to remove some of the substances that tend to stick to the skin
    • barrier creams may be used to protect skin that will be wet for long periods
    • use the correct barrier cream for the particular task
    • do not use barrier cream on damaged skin
  • use a cleanser made from vegetable oil to remove grease or other substances that will not come off with soap and water
    • do not use solvents for cleaning hands
  • use moisturising creams regularly, especially at the end of a shift, to repair and maintain moisture in the skin
  • treat minor cuts and abrasions promptly
  • include information about contact dermatitis in safety training programs.

It is advisable to seek medical advice, ideally from an occupational physician or dermatologist, if you experience any dermatitis symptoms.