Millions of North American workers have jobs that expose them to chemical contact through their skin, including employees in the agricultural, manufacturing, services, transportation/utilities, construction and sales sectors.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), skin problems and diseases are the most common non-injury health issue reported by workers, with the costs of work-related skin problems exceeding $1 billion every year.
Chemical exposures to the skin can cause temporary or permanent health damage. Temporary skin problems may include dry, red, cracked skin from contact with water, soap, gasoline and certain types of solvents. These health problems usually heal quickly when the skin is no longer in contact with the substance.
Permanent skin damage may occur if the worker is exposed to a chemical known to have a severe impact. For example, a chemical burn may leave a permanent scar, and exposure to certain chemicals can cause permanent loss of skin color.
Permanent damage may also occur to body organs or systems as a result of chemical exposure through the skin. For example, exposure to certain solvents may cause liver or kidney damage, while skin exposure to some pesticides can potentially cause fatal damage to the nervous system.
Chemical exposure may also cause a worker to become unusually sensitive to that chemical or a group of chemicals. Once sensitized, a person will suffer an allergic reaction whenever he or she is exposed to the chemical. The only way to deal with the problem is to prevent any further exposure or contact with the chemical.
NIOSH says workers need to be made aware of how their skin can be exposed to chemicals at work, either through direct contact with liquid, including spills and splashes, contact with contaminated surfaces or contact with spray or mist.