Environmental Health & Safety

Occupational Dermatitis

Dermatitis is a wide-spread occupational disease. Two common forms of dermatitis, normally seen in the workplace, are allergic dermatitis and contact (irritant) dermatitis. These conditions comprise up to 15% to 20% of all reported occupational diseases in this nation. Dermatitis is extremely prevalent because there are many agents which can trigger a dermatological reaction. These reactions can take the form of rashes, itchiness, or hives.

Contact dermatitis is the most common occupational skin disease and is often the result of reactions to chemical solvents. Allergic dermatitis can also be triggered by a wide variety of substances, including latex and pesticides. A person may become allergic to a material after a brief exposure or it may take many years to develop. Hives (contact urticaria) can result from either irritants or allergens. Contact dermatitis can often be distinguished from allergic dermatitis by its irregular skin configurations and by the fact that it is more likely to cause localized reactions such as itching and redness on the exposed skin.

A number of substances may induce both contact and allergic dermatitis. An example of this is latex gloves. Although latex commonly causes contact dermatitis, it may also trigger allergic dermatitis and hives. The proteins responsible for latex allergies have been shown to be present in the powder used on some types of gloves. For more information about latex allergies please call the Department of Environmental Health and Safety at x4152.


It is often very difficult to determine the specific cause of an episode of allergic or contact dermatitis. Many people are highly sensitive to specific types of chemicals in foods, cosmetics, medications, and perfumes. Some foods seem to cause hives to a greater extent than others. These include nuts, chocolate, fish, tomatoes, eggs, berries, and milk. Sometimes additives and preservatives in the food may be responsible for the hives. Hives can also result from physical agents such as vibration, sunlight, cold pressure, and exercise. Contact dermatitis can be caused by a great number of substances including cleaning chemicals, nickel dust, adhesives, and epoxy resins.


The most effective method of dealing with any type of dermatitis risk is through prevention. The substitution of hazardous chemicals with safer materials, whenever possible, will greatly decrease the risk of dermatitis. This may involve modifications in procedures but can often be accomplished through direct substitution. The second line of defense against dermatitis is the use of protective equipment and barrier creams. It is important to always wear gloves (powder-free, if possible) and a lab coat when working with any potentially irritating material.

It is also a good idea to wash skin with mild soap before and after wearing gloves and to keep the work place as clean as possible. Avoid handling any chemical if cuts or scrapes are present on hands or forearms.

If contact with an irritating substance does occur, immediately wash the substance off of the skin with mild soap and water. Anti-inflammatory creams may also be applied if they are available. If the case is severe, a personal physician will generally prescribe anti-histamines or oral cortisone to relieve the itching.

Report any cases of occupationally related skin reactions to the Department of Environmental Health and Safety at once. If the causative agent is not immediately apparent try to consider what may have contributed to the reaction. Areas to investigate include new foods, cosmetics, medications, or perfumes. Environmental clues may include unusual smells, a new chemical, cleaning fluid, or powder in the work area, or the arrival of new furniture or rugs. The Department of Environmental Health and Safety has a developed a dermatitis questionnaire designed to aid in the identification of the source of the irritation.

Please contact us if you have any questions.