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Protecting employees from a potentially debilitating problem

Work-related contact dermatitis is a prevalent issue in the hospitality industry.

In fact, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has identified the condition as one of the key health risks employees working within the sector face.

Hands are most often affected, followed by the forearms and face. The condition can be severe enough to keep workers off work or even require them to change jobs altogether. This can have significant consequences for hospitality businesses, especially in the context of the sector’s high turnover and the difficulties employers often face when it comes to attracting new staff.

It’s important for café owners to understand the workplace causes of contact dermatitis and the steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of employees developing the condition – thereby minimising disruption to your business.

What is contact dermatitis?

Healthy skin is supple and soft and has a protective layer that guards against infection. Contact dermatitis, more commonly known as eczema, is an inflammatory skin condition that develops when the skin’s barrier layer is damaged. Initial symptoms typically involve skin that feels dry and sore. If left untreated, contact dermatitis can lead to painful redness, swelling, itching, splitting, blistering, flaking and cracking of the skin.

There are two types of contact dermatitis, one caused by irritants and the other by the body becoming allergic to a substance:

  1. Irritant contact dermatitis is triggered by regular contact with everyday substances that damage the skin’s outer layer. Experts believe people who suffer from eczema as a child may be more vulnerable.
  2. Allergic contact dermatitis is much less common. Symptoms are similar to irritant dermatitis, but the reaction can occur fairly quickly.

Who’s most affected?

Some 9% of the UK population suffer from contact dermatitis. Hospitality workers who regularly have contact with food, water and cleaning products are among the most susceptible to developing the condition, especially those who handle causative substances such as soaps, disinfectants and cleansing products.

Your employees may be at risk of developing contact dermatitis if their role requires them to:

  • Constantly handle food;
  • For hygiene reasons, wash their hands more than 20 times a day;
  • Have their hands in water for more than two hours a day (evidence suggests dermatitis can develop when the skin has been weakened by prolonged or regular contact with water); and
  • Regularly clean kitchen surfaces, dishes, cutlery or kitchen utensils.

For these reasons, the condition is one that café owners should be acutely aware of. In fact, according to the Health and Safety Executive:

  • The number of new cases of work-related contact dermatitis in the catering sector is twice the average level found in all industries.
  • An estimated 84,000 UK employees have dermatitis caused or made worse by their work – and 10% of those work in the catering and food industry.
Did you know? Often, in ensuring the wellbeing of their employees, employers focus more on safety and less on employees’ health. However, the cost to employers of resolving incidents of work-related contact dermatitis can end up being twice as much as an accident causing physical injury.

What steps can employers take to reduce this risk to employees’ health?

As an employer, you have a general duty to protect the health of your employees with regards to potential skin irritants. In other words, you must take steps to prevent workers from developing contact dermatitis.

This means carrying out risk assessments to identify situations where staff members could potentially develop contact dermatitis. Where there is a risk, you must put in place appropriate safety measures to remove or minimise the danger. Employees should also be provided with appropriate information, instruction and training on the problem.

Follow the ‘ACP’ method to prevent staff from developing work-related contact dermatitis:

Avoid:                   Where possible, make sure workers avoid direct contact with substances that can cause dermatitis – for example, by providing utensils for handling food and, where appropriate, using a dishwasher instead of cleaning by hand.

Protect:                Provide staff with suitable gloves and moisturiser to replenish the skin’s natural oils.

Check:                  Make sure employees regularly check their hands for itchy, dry or red skin. Early signs of dermatitis should be reported to a supervisor as treatment is much more effective when the condition is caught early.

Importantly, the HSE reports that occupational dermatitis accounts for 10% of all compensation cases under the Department for Work and Pensions’ Industrial Injuries Scheme. The condition also makes up 13% of cases of occupational diseases reported under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013, giving further cause for employers to bump the condition up their list of health and safety priorities.


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Keen to take proactive steps to prevent contact dermatitis developing among your employees? For professional guidance on effective control measures that will help to ensure staff welfare, prevent downtime and keep your café compliant, call Bira Legal at any time.
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