Skin conditions

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Occupational dermatitis

This is a skin condition that is generally caused by exposure to irritants contained in chemicals and other harmful substances. Bricklayers, stonemasons, and painters and decorators are the trades that are most at risk of occupational dermatitis in the construction industry. The hands and forearms are usually affected, but in some cases the face, legs, feet and other parts of the body can be affected. The condition cannot be passed on from the sufferer to other people. It can be painful and will affect your personal life as well as your work life.

Dermatitis showing crusting and thickening of the skin

Some of the symptoms are shown below.

  • Redness.
  • Itching.
  • Dryness.
  • Cracking or blistering.

The most common cause of dermatitis in the construction industry is working with cement. Wet cement can also cause burns.

There are two general types of occupational dermatitis, as outlined below.

  1. Irritant contact dermatitis. This is usually caused by the skin coming into contact with an irritant substance, which is often a chemical or dust. Anyone can be affected. The amount of time a person is exposed, together with the strength of the irritant substance, will affect the seriousness of the complaint. Most cases of dermatitis are of this type.
    Irritant contact dermatitis ‘pizza knee’ from a cement burn
  2. Allergic contact dermatitis (sensitising dermatitis). Some people develop an allergic reaction to a specific substance. This reaction may follow after weeks, months or even years of use or exposure to a substance without any ill effects. However, once sensitising dermatitis has occurred, any future exposure to, or contact with, the substance will again produce an allergic reaction. The skin’s reaction to irritants varies from one individual to another. The reaction may be only a mild redness, or it can develop into swelling, blisters and septic ulcers that are both unsightly and painful.

Personal hygiene is particularly important when working with materials that may be irritants. It is equally important that clothing is kept clean (for example, oil-stained and dirty overalls are a well-known cause of skin problems around the groin).

Allergic dermatitis can make your skin so sensitive you will not be able to use some substances again, which could end your career.

Skin cancer

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is a major cause of skin cancer. Around 800 construction workers are diagnosed with skin cancer every year as a result of sun exposure. Those who work outdoors are at a greater risk.

The following actions will help to prevent overexposure and reduce the likelihood of skin cancer.

  • Covering up exposed skin by wearing suitable loose, long-sleeved and long-legged clothing and a hat.
  • Using sun block on exposed arms, face and neck.

You should drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration.

If you notice new warts or moles, changes to existing moles or they begin to itch, seek medical advice as soon as possible. Don’t ignore it – early diagnosis and treatment is vital.

Although less common, skin cancer can be caused by contact with mineral oils. Daily contact with items such as oily clothing or gloves can lead to a form of skin cancer. Mineral oils are common on mechanical plant and pipe-threading machines.