When it comes to safety and health on construction sites, a lot of attention gets paid to the “big four” hazards: workers falling, being electrocuted and getting struck by or caught in between objects. And that’s for good reason – those hazards are how many construction laborers lose their lives every year. But there’s another pervasive problem that doesn’t get nearly as much attention.
According to NIOSH, occupational skin disorders are the second most common type of illness workers face, trailing only back injuries. About 13 million workers across the U.S. are estimated to be at risk from harmful chemicals that can be absorbed through the skin. Many of these workers make their living in construction.
“LIUNA members make a career of working with their hands,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “Protecting your hands is one of the best ways to have a long, productive career in the construction industry. Workers and signatory contractors should both take steps to promote good hand safety so members can continue to put their valuable skills and training to use on jobsites across the U.S. and Canada.”
About 90 percent of occupational skin disorders are contact dermatitis, which usually appears as:
- Red or swollen hands or fingers
- Cracked or itchy skin
- Inflammation or a rash at the affected area
- Blisters, burns or flaking skin
Contact dermatitis usually occurs after the skin comes in contact with hazardous chemicals, but can also occur from biological sources such as insects, plants or bacteria. The severity of the reaction depends on the strength of the chemical, the length of exposure, the condition of the skin and the immune tolerance of the worker.
Solvents and abrasive cleaners, wet cement, paints, adhesives and other materials commonly used in construction can all lead to contact dermatitis. Workers are usually exposed when chemicals or other irritants splash onto and are absorbed through the skin, but workers can also be exposed by inhaling vapors in the air or touching a contaminated surface.
Irritant vs. Allergic Contact Dermatitis
There are two types of contact dermatitis: irritant and allergic. Irritant contact dermatitis makes up the majority of cases. Common examples include a rash from poison ivy or skin irritation caused by touching portland cement.
With allergic contact dermatitis, an initial exposure can cause a worker’s immune system to become sensitized to that substance and develop an allergy to it. Depending on the individual worker, the allergy can develop after the first exposure, after many exposures or not at all.
Once an allergy develops, future exposures can result in more severe symptoms or a faster onset of symptoms, even if the worker only comes in contact with a small amount of the substance. Both irritant and allergic contact dermatitis result in similar skin reactions, but allergic reactions represent a more serious risk for workers. “Allergic [reactions] are the hardest to control, because once you’re allergic, it doesn’t take much to have that response again,” says Chris Rennix, chair of the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s Occupational Epidemiology Committee. Allergic reactions can include the following:
- Skin: irritation, redness, itching, swelling, blistering, weeping, crusting, rash, eruptions or hives (itchy bumps or welts)
- Lungs: wheezing, tightness, coughing or shortness of breath
- Head: swelling or bumps on the face, neck, eyelids, lips, tongue or throat, hoarseness of voice, headaches
- Nose: stuffy nose, runny nose (clear, thin discharge), sneezing, postnasal drip
- Eyes: red (bloodshot), itchy, swollen or watery
- Stomach: pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Other: fatigue, sore throat, dizziness or lightheadedness
Preventing Contact Dermatitis on the Job
The best way for employers to prevent contact dermatitis on the job is to keep workers from being exposed to these substances in the first place. Employers should conduct a risk assessment for each irritant or allergen workers may come in contact with on site by reviewing relevant safety data sheets and creating a plan to eliminate or reduce exposures. All workers should then be trained on how to avoid these hazards, including the use of good hand hygiene, how to recognize symptoms of overexposure and what to do if they experience them.
Employers should follow OSHA’s hierarchy of controls by first eliminating the use of the hazardous chemical or substituting it with safer alternatives when possible. Employers should then consider redesigning work processes to prevent splashes or other contact with harmful materials. When these methods can’t ensure safe working conditions, employers should supplement them with proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Often this means choosing the right gloves and respirators for the task or chemical involved. Click here for more information on how to select the right gloves for the job. For more about how to select proper PPE to prevent skin disorders, see this previous Lifelines article.
The LHSFNA’s Toxics pocket guide and Skin Problems in Construction Health Alert provide more information on harmful chemicals that Laborers may come in contact with on the job. They can be ordered through the Fund’s online Publications Catalogue or by calling 202-628-5465.