What you should know about occupational dermatitis and asthma


Of all the world's work-related health conditions, occupational contact dermatitis and asthma are among the most frequently reported. What are these conditions, and what workers are at risk?

With contact dermatitis, exposure to chemical, biological or physical agents in the workplace can cause an acute or chronic inflammation of the skin. Often there is a latent period between first contact with the irritating agent and the onset of symptoms, during this period it is thought that the skin becomes sensitised to the agent.

Occupational Asthma

Occupational asthma is characterised by symptoms of coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath and is due to inflammation of the airways. This common occupational disease is caused when workplace gases, dusts, fumes, vapours or allergens are inhaled. Again there is typically a latent period of between 6 months and 2 years, and usually the symptoms of asthma will subside when the victim is not exposed to the irritant for example out of work hours or when on holiday.

With each condition, reaction can be allergic or due to irritation. Some 80% of contact dermatitis cases occur on the hands, which can become chapped, dry and often scaly and reddened. The condition is most frequently caused by chronic irritation from water, soaps, solvents and greases, with symptoms often taking many months to appear.

Latex is the most common dermatitis-related allergen; cases soared in the 1980s as use of latex gloves increased. A latex allergy can show up as a rash, asthma, rhinitis or, in the very worst cases, anaphylaxis and death.

Emma Costin, Head of Industrial Disease at Simpson Millar comments: "If you are sensitive to latex, it is advisable to wear an alert bracelet and carry epinephrine and antihistamines which you can self-inject. While manufacturers tend no longer to use latex, it is still present in some healthcare supplies. If you think you are suffering from asthma caused or made worse by your work it is important to seek medical and legal advice as early as possible. There is a 3 year limitation period which will usually start to run from the onset of symptoms."

We provide a list below of some of the occupations most at risk from occupational contact dermatitis and asthma. If you work in one of these environments, please take a note of what you should be aware of in the workplace:

Building and construction workers

Should watch out for: Chromium in some cements
Can cause: Contact dermatitis

Caterers and bakers

Should watch out for: Exposure to wheat flour
Can cause: Rhinitis, nasal allergies & other nasal symptoms, systemic reaction
Should watch out for: Egg, soy beans, fish & shellfish
Can cause: Systemic reaction
Should watch out for: Products containing peanuts
Can cause: Systemic allergic reaction

Dock and farm workers

Should watch out for: Mouldy hay in haylofts & silos
Can cause: Hypersensitivity pnuemonitis
Should watch out for: Dust from plants & poultry
Can cause: Asthma

Doctors, nurses and medical assistants

Should watch out for: Latex rubber in tubing, gloves & medical supplies
Can cause: Contact dermatitis


Should watch out for: Fumes from soldering
Can cause: Lung disease

Environmental services and cleaning workers

Should watch out for: Detergents containing bleaches & enzymes
Can cause: Contact dermatitis, asthma


Should watch out for: Lilies, primula, ivy
Can cause: Contact dermatitis


Should watch out for: Paraphenylenediamine in dyes & bleaches Can cause: Contact dermatitis, eczema
Should watch out for: Persulfates in perm solutions
Can cause: Respiratory distress, dermatitis, eczema

Joiners, woodworkers and carpenters

Should watch out for: Exotic hardwoods
Can cause: Rhinitis, asthma, contact dermatitis

Lab technicians

Should watch out for: Animal dander, saliva, bird proteins, endotoxins, solvent & inorganic acid vapour
Can cause: Asthma, rhinitis


Should watch out for: Coal dust, silica
Can cause: Nasal symptoms, chronic lung disease, pulmonary complications


Should watch out for: Psyllium dust
Can cause: Rhinitis
Should watch out for: Exposure to antibiotics
Can cause: Sensitisation allergy, contact dermatitis

Pharmaceuticals and chemical manufacturing workers

Should watch out for: Enzymes, medication, biological dusts
Can cause: Sensitivity allergy Should watch out for: Ammonia, bleach, chloramines
Can cause: Rhinitis

Print workers

Should watch out for: Acrylic dyes
Can cause: Contact dermatitis, rash

Vehicle mechanics

Should watch out for: Benzene
Can cause: Contact dermatitis

If you think you have developed occupational dermatitis or a work-related allergy, it's important to have it checked out straight away – if symptoms are caught early enough, you could be saved a lot of discomfort and pain.

It's crucial to note that once a workplace allergy sets in, symptoms won't necessarily improve simply by staying away from work. To prevent a potentially chronic illness, it's much more important to try and avoid specific allergens and manage your symptoms. And above all, speak to your GP.

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