Managing the risks from skin exposure

Once a skin contamination problem has been identified, possible remedies need to be considered to prevent ill health. Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (as amended) (COSHH), employers have to make sure that employees' exposure to hazardous materials by skin contact and absorption through the skin is either prevented or, where this is not reasonably practicable, adequately controlled.

The following advice should help you to develop good control practice and there is also basic, straightforward information on the causes of skin disease and advice on how to identify the symptoms.

Prevent exposure by elimination or substitution

The first consideration should be to prevent exposure, either through:

  • elimination of the substance with the potential to cause health effects following skin contact (for example, using a scraper to remove paint instead of paint stripping with a solvent); or
  • substituting the substance. Choose something less hazardous (for example, replacing an aggressive cleaning product with a milder one or even changing the form of a substance such as changing a powder to a less dusty pellet form).

Design and operate processes to minimise emission and transmission

If elimination or substitution is impractical then the next most effective way of preventing skin disease is to design and operate processes to avoid contact in the first place. Here are some of the options:

  • Completely enclose the source and automate the process. This removes skin exposure for normal operations, limiting it to cleaning and maintenance tasks.
  • Enclose as much of the process as possible and use extraction ventilation to capture substances at their point of release. This does not remove the risk from direct handling but helps to prevent the spread of contamination to workplace surfaces and it protects employees working nearby.
  • Prevent transmission by putting up a shield between the employee and the source, eg a splashguard or screen.
  • Avoid direct handling of substances or contaminated work articles:
    • use mechanical handling or tools such as scoops, hooks or tongs;
    • consider soluble packaging, eg pesticide concentrates can be used in water soluble sachets;
    • use automated dosing systems.
  • Limit the spread of contamination by having clear 'clean' and 'dirty' areas.
  • Reduce transmission by increasing the distance between the worker and the source – apply a 'safe working distance', eg use long-handled tools to minimise skin contact.
  • Employ good housekeeping. Where contamination is unavoidable keep levels low by cleaning regularly. Choose easy-to-clean surfaces. Use drip trays to prevent spills/drips from spreading.

Where adequate control of exposure cannot be achieved by other means, provide suitable personal protective equipment (PPE) in combination with other control measures.

  • PPE tends to be less effective and reliable than other control options because:
    • it only protects the wearer;
    • it has to be selected carefully;
    • it has to be put on, worn and taken off properly;
    • it has to be properly stored, checked and maintained;
    • it may limit mobility/dexterity;
    • it can be delicate and relatively easily damaged;
    • it can sometimes fail to danger without warning.
  • PPE includes gloves, aprons and overalls. Choose the quality and construction to provide the right level of protection without being over the top for the job as this can discourage use.
  • Typically the hands and forearms are most likely to come into contact with hazardous materials so selecting gloves that are right for the work is crucial.
  • Make sure that PPE is compatible with the wearer, the work and with other PPE to be worn.
  • Incorrectly selected or badly fitting PPE can increase the risk of exposure as contamination can get through or around the PPE and become trapped against the skin.

Adequate facilities for washing and good skin care

Skin care plays an important role in preventing skin disease. Employers should:

  • ensure that employees maintain a standard of personal hygiene that is consistent with adequate control of exposure;
  • provide adequate washing facilities. This includes a supply of warm water, soft cotton or paper towels and moisturising creams;
  • tell employees about the importance of thorough drying of skin after washing, the use of moisturisers to replace the natural skin oils lost by washing and the action of certain substances on the skin.

Health surveillance

  • Health surveillance such as skin checks will help to identify the early symptoms of dermatitis or other health effects caused by skin exposure.
  • The earlier the health effect is recognised the better the prognosis for the sufferer.
  • Health surveillance can show whether an adequate standard of control is being maintained.

More detailed information can be found on our health surveillance for skin diseases page

Information, instruction and training

Human behaviour is critical in maintaining the effectiveness of control measures. Employers must therefore inform, instruct and train workers about the risks from skin exposure and the steps they need to take to protect themselves. This includes instruction in the correct use of any PPE provided and in good skin care regimes.

A range of training resources are available, including guides, posters, toolbox talks and other tools.

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Updated 2021-05-06