Countless employers require their workers to handle chemicals, either on a daily basis or periodically when non-routine tasks such as cleaning, periodic maintenance, or testing are performed. In some workplaces large quantities are handled whereas others may involve much smaller amounts. In every case it's important to identify chemicals which are hazardous to the skin and to implement measures that will protect the worker from skin exposures.
An evaluation of your chemical's Safety Data Sheet (formerly known as a Material Safety Data Sheet) will help you understand not only if the chemical is toxic to the skin but also the type of damage it inflicts. For example, skin irritants can cause contact dermatitis, a condition that causes itchy, red, or dry and flaky skin. Corrosive chemicals can burn the skin and cause permanent scarring. Contact with skin allergens can trigger a condition known as allergic contact dermatitis (ACD). Commonly referred to as "hives", ACD is characterized by a severely itchy rash that often includes blisters.
The conditions and symptoms described above damage the skin and the skin alone. It makes sense that damage is caused at the point of contact, right? While this is often the case, we need to point out that some chemicals can penetrate intact skin and subsequently travel to other organs. These target organs are then susceptible to damage. In the world of Industrial Hygiene we refer to chemicals in this category as "skin absorbers" or as chemicals having a "skin notation" or a "skin designation".
A few skin absorbers are listed below along with their target organs and corresponding negative health effects:
|Chemical Name||Target Organ||Health Effects|
|Benzene||Blood & Bone Marrow||Leukemia|
|Methanol||Optic Nerve||Blurred Vision or Blindness|
|Mercury & Mercury Compounds||Brain||Tremors, Irritability, Weakness|
|Nitroglycerin||Cardiovascular System||Hypotension, Angina, Palpitations|
Protect your workers from harmful skin exposures. Remember that OSHA mandates that all employers follow the hierarchy of controls as they evaluate protective measures. It emphasizes exposure controls that are more robust, require little or no interaction on the employee's part, and are therefore less likely to fail.
The hierarchy first requires the employer to try to eliminate the chemical or substitute it with a less harmful one. If this is not possible then the employer must evaluate engineering controls. These controls physically change the workplace in order to isolate the worker from the chemical. If these first two approaches are infeasible then administrative controls which use policies, procedures, etc. to alter the way that work is performed may be considered. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE), including chemical-resistant gloves, is allowed as a last resort and the least preferred control mechanism.
Do your employees handle chemicals? Are these chemicals harmful to the skin? Are any of them skin absorbers? Cashins & Associates can evaluate your chemical handling tasks and work with you to reduce the risk of negative health effects.
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