What is it?

Occupational dermatitis is an inflammation of the skin caused by irritating or sensitising substances at work.  The symptoms include:

  • Red flaky skin;
  • Itching and irritation;
  • Weeping from cracking skin or blisters; and
  • Sores which may become infected.

The causes of occupational dermatitis

There are a large number of substances known to cause dermatitis.  These substances can be classified into two categories of either irritants or sensitisers:

Primary irritants

If a substance is strong enough and is in contact with the skin for sufficient time, these substances can cause inflammation and acute dermatitis in the area of contact.  This dermatitis is called irritant contact dermatitis.


These substances do not affect everyone, only a relatively small proportion of people may become sensitive to them.  Symptoms may not appear immediately and can appear on areas of skin not in contact with the irritant.  Once a person becomes sensitive to the substance, they will probably remain so.  This is called allergic contact dermatitis


It is easier to prevent dermatitis than to cure it.  The basic aim of prevention is to eliminate contact between the irritant or sensitiser and the skin using a variety of methods.

Personal protective equipment

This can include overalls, aprons, gloves, footwear, leggings and face masks of various kinds.  Protective clothing should be washed frequently and inspected regularly for holes or worn areas.

Barrier creams

The aim of these creams is to create a barrier, which will limit contact between skin and irritant. There are recommendations that these be applied to the skin before work, and be of a type that prevents the irritant coming into direct skin contact.   

However, Barrier creams do not prevent sensitisers penetrating into the skin and are considered not generally effective as a preventative measure for Occupational Contact Dermatitis.

Personal cleanliness

This plays the most vital part of all in preventing occupational dermatitis.  Removing all dirt and contaminants from the skin as soon as practicable, i.e. during work breaks, and at the end of the day is extremely important.  The employee should take full advantage of the washing and cleaning facilities provided by the employer.  It is sensible to use the facilities often.

For this same reason clothing and overalls must also be washed frequently.  There is no advantage in washing skin thoroughly if it is covered for several hours by a dirty overall.

Care of the skin

The use of conditioning creams little and often during and at the end of each day is helpful in maintaining the skin in a healthy condition.  This is particularly so when the work or frequent cleansing tends to remove the skins natural secretions.  Such cream helps build resistance to both types of dermatitis.

Always report any signs of dermatitis to your employer and consult a medical practitioner.


Occupational dermatitis does not happen; it is caused.  Therefore:

  • Avoid contact with oils, chemicals, resins (including plant resins) etc;
  • Remove contamination as soon as practicable;
  • Wear appropriate protective clothing;
  • Ensure protective clothing is clean and free from holes;
  • The use of barrier creams is considered not generally effective to prevent dermatitis;
  • Clean and dry the hands thoroughly;
  • Use the washing facilities provided;
  • Use conditioning creams little and often during and after your working day;
  • Report any skin disorders to your supervisor, GP or your Occupational Health Nurse.

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