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Protecting workers from occupational skin diseases - a $33 million problem

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Occupational skin diseases are the second most common work-related disease presented to general practitioners in Australia, with recent reports released by Safe Work Australia placing the cost to businesses at around $33 million annually.

Workers most at risk of skin disease are those who are exposed to chemicals or wet work in their day to day jobs. Some of the main causes are thought to be:
  • detergents
  • disinfectants
  • solvents
  • bases and alkalis
  • fuels
  • rubber accelerators; and
  • potassium dichromate in leather and cement.
Safe Work Australia Chair Mr Tom Phillips AM noted that of the workers who report exposure to chemicals, only 61 per cent said they had received chemical safety training.

"This is a clear message that work health and safety training needs to be integrated in every workplace in Australia no matter how big or small and include how to properly handle chemicals and hazardous substances," he said.

Correct training, then, is paramount to a successful chemical handling plan. Ferret.com.au provides  an extensive list of companies that provide occupational health and safety training and resources.

One such company is CCH Australia , a leading supplier of safety information that maintains a comprehensive catalogue of health and safety publications.

CCH's Work Health and Safety Law Reporter allows businesses to keep up to date with the latest changes to OHS legislation, providing a breakdown of changes by jurisdiction.

Ecospill is another company that provides safety training services, specifically dealing with spill response procedures, a key consideration when dealing with industrial chemicals.

Assuming that all employees are correctly trained in chemical handling procedures, there are three key approaches to reducing the risk of occupational skin disease in an industrial environment.

These are:
  • control at the source: product substitution
  • control along the path: engineering controls; and
  • control at the worker: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), administrative controls, and personal hygiene.
The most effective method of control is product substitution, whereby exposure to the compound or product causing the skin condition is eliminated by substituting it with another compound of lower skin reactivity. Given the complexity of modern manufacturing processes, however, this is not always a viable option.

By installing engineering controls such as ventilation and isolation booths, employers can prevent compounds that cause skin diseases from directly contacting the skin of workers, a key consideration when dealing with industrial chemicals.

Companies that specialise in ventilation, extraction and monitoring equipment include Airtight Solutions , which provides a range of fume, dust and oil mist extraction systems, and Sydney Metal Fabrications , a custom fabrication company that can supply modular ducting systems custom made to suit given applications.

The final layer of control with regard to chemicals deals expressly with exposure at the worker. These controls require a greater level of oversight to be effective, as they rely on workers to implement.

PPE here is self-explanatory, and includes:
  • gloves
  • safety glasses and goggles
  • shop coats and overalls
  • boots; and
  • hearing protection systems.
Honeywell Safety Products and MSA (Aust.) both supply a variety of PPE, specialising in safety equipment for mining and industrial applications.

Broadly, administrative controls could be seen to include safety training as mentioned above, but these controls also extend to the establishment of company policies that define work practices and establish the consequences of not following procedure. These controls could include the prescription of safety signs in hazardous areas, such as those offered by Bronson Safety .

Finally, personal hygiene may seem to be exclusively the responsibility of each individual worker, but this can only be effective in preventing skin diseases if employers ensure that workers have access to the proper facilities and cleansing agents.

In addition to supplying spill response and containment equipment, Enware Australia specialises in emergency showers and eye wash stations. When coming into contact with hazardous contaminants, the most important initial treatment should be immediately washing the contaminated part of the body, so these products are a valuable addition to industrial environments where dangerous chemicals are used.

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