Wet work dermatitis in meat processing

The problem:

Fifty-five employees working for a meat processing company experienced skin problems, mainly affecting their hands and lower wrists and resulting in red and itchy skin. Two employees ended up with permanent scarring, one person had been sensitised and one employee could not return to work.

The work practice in place involved a daily repeat hand-cleansing routine, up to 30-40 washes a day. In addition, the company introduced a new hand cleanser as the standard in the affected area of the factory but months later the first reports of skin reactions came to fruition. The cleanser in question was used elsewhere in the company and by many other food companies, with no apparent problem. So it was reasonable to assume that this was not the prime or sole cause of the problem.

The most likely cause was identified as excessive washing in 'over-hot', softened, chlorine dioxide dosed water, particularly as the chlorine dioxide dosing was not well controlled.

No remedial actions, such as emollient creams or health surveillance, were in place so early warnings were missed.

Inadvertently, following a strict food hygiene regime resulted in a recipe for skin problems.

Although disposable, powdered vinyl gloves were available, only people with either plasters covering cuts or with skin problems could use them when handling food. The company policy was that these powdered gloves should always be used when cleaning equipment or surfaces, but this was considered to be a major contributor to employees' skin problems as the powder would act as a skin irritant.


The employer sought help from a consultant. Following an investigation and recommendations, the following actions were taken:

  • The use of the suspect hand cleanser was discontinued, as a precaution.
  • Water temperature was reduced and controlled at 32°C.
  • Chlorine dioxide dosing was better regulated and data logged to achieve a continuous ideal level.
  • Washing procedures were reduced from 35 to 11 washes, and still were able to maintain adequate food hygiene standards.
  • Food grade emollient cream was supplied and its use encouraged.
  • Health surveillance was introduced and continues.


  • Work-related dermatitis was brought under control and further sickness absence avoided.
  • Continued use of all existing control measures, with the addition of appropriate health surveillance.
  • Reduced water temperature is kinder to the skin and saves energy.
  • Better dosing of chlorine dioxide has the potential for reduction in consumption, improved quality control.

While there can be no guarantee that the above implemented changes will eliminate all further skin problems, it will significantly reduce the likelihood of them occurring.

Case study supplied by: Geo-Adams and Sons

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Updated 2021-05-04