Dermatitis is a general term meaning inflammation of the skin. Eczema is a form of dermatitis. Approximately 29% of industrial health problems relate to contact dermatitis. Every year 80,000 people suffer from skin problems caused, or made worse by work. Most people work with their hands and are the first part of the skin that is affected by contact dermatitis.
There are two types of contact dermatitis - irritant and allergic. Irritant contact dermatitis is where there is repeated contact with substances such as soaps and detergents, rubber and chemicals.
Allergic dermatitis occurs when the body's immune system reacts against an 'allergen' such as nickel which is found in metallic jewellery. Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, runs in families and is commonly associated with hay fever and asthma. Once the skin is damaged by dermatitis, it is no longer a barrier against the outside world and the skin can easily be irritated further.
The symptoms include chapped skin, soreness and scaly skin, redness, swelling, blister formation, itching and burning and weeping and crusting. Scratching often makes the condition worse.
Some people are more at risk than others. Work where the hands are frequently wet such as hairdressing, catering, cleaning, laboratory workers, some craft workers, and nursing are particularly at risk. People with atopic eczema are more vulnerable to irritant contact dermatitis, as their skin is less resilient to damage by irritant substances. The substances causing dermatitis are wide ranging from rubber, soaps, detergents, oils and ink to food and chemicals.
Employers have a duty to protect their employees under common law. However this has been further protected by, The Health and Safety at Work Act, The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations, The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations and The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations.
The Act and the Regulations oblige employers to make a ‘suitable and sufficient' assessment of the risks from chemicals and hazardous substances including the risk of dermatitis. No chemicals should be used without a risk assessment first being conducted. If it is not reasonably practicable to prevent exposure to these substances, the law says they must do what you can to control that exposure.
The courts will take into account that your health, livelihood, family and social life can be adversely affected. Your skin can become damaged for life. You may have to change jobs or in fact may be unable to obtain employment. It may affect your appearance.
Here are some examples of court awards:
Cleaner receives £31,000
A cleaner was not warned by her employer of the dangers of using chemicals without gloves. As a result she contracted acute dermatitis and had to give up work. She was awarded £31,000. The court was of the view that her employer's duty to provide a safe system of work was not discharged just by providing gloves, her employers also obliged to warn her of the danger.
Factory Worker receives £6,000
Damages were awarded to a 59-year-old factory worker for contact dermatitis and eczema. She suffered from contacted dermatitis on fingers from time to time then eczema on her neck lasting one month. She was forced to retire early, due to the recurrence of dermatitis when in contact with adhesives. She believed condition prevented her obtaining work as a shop assistant.
Cleaner receives £26,000
The claimant, a 61-year-old woman, received £26,000 total damages for recurring dermatitis after she came into contact with an acidic solution during the course of her employment as a cleaner. The claimant was off work for two weeks after each attack. She was unable to find work, since leaving her job four years before the trial which was reflected in the award for compensation.
Process operative receives £25,000
The claimant, 45 years of age, was working with detergents at work. Whilst his employers provided him with gloves, they were not suitable as the cuff of the glove became loose during the day causing the detergent to come into contact with his hand and wrist. The claimant obtained an out of court settlement for £25,000 that included compensation for the risk that his employment prospects were prejudiced due to his dermatitis condition. The defendant accepted his evidence that another company had already refused him employment because of his dermatitis.