A staggering 84,000 people in the UK are believed to have dermatitis, either caused by or worsened by their work, making it the most common cause of job-related ill health. The condition – which has been the subject of several recent HSE prosecutions – can significantly impact an employee’s wellbeing and quality of life. 

However, by following a few simple steps, it’s easy to dramatically reduce dermatitis risks in your school.

What is dermatitis?

Dermatitis is a skin condition, often characterised by red, cracked, dry skin on exposed parts of the body, but it can present in different ways. If allowed to develop, dermatitis can be an extremely painful, debilitating, and irreversible condition, causing considerable disruption to an employee’s daily life. 

There are broadly two types of dermatitis to be aware of:

  • Irritant contact dermatitis occurs when an irritant is in contact with the skin either repeatedly or for an extended period of time.
  • Allergic contact dermatitis develops when a staff member is exposed to a substance that they then develop an allergy to, causing dermatitis on future exposure.

Dermatitis is also an occupational disease that must be reported to the HSE under the RIDDOR regulations when diagnosed. 

Common causes

Below is a non-exhaustive list of common causes of occupational dermatitis.

  1. Water, soaps, and detergents account for around 55% of all occupational dermatitis cases, making them the most common cause. In your school environment, this will clearly be of most concern for your kitchen and cleaning staff.
  2. Surprisingly, foods such as sugars, flour, and fruits can also trigger dermatitis.
  3. Hazardous chemicals, including metalworking fluids, often used in metalworking machinery, such as lathes in DT departments. 
  4. Other chemicals, such as cement and hand sanitiser gels.

How to prevent dermatitis

  1. Avoid – Take steps to remove the work activity or substance, replace the irritant with a safer alternative, or alter the work to eliminate exposure. For example, using a dishwasher instead of washing by hand.
  2. Protect – If you cannot avoid contact with a substance, protect the skin from contact. This usually involves providing gloves to cleaners and kitchen staff, but could also include supplying moisturisers to help replenish oils in the skin. Barrier creams can sometimes be helpful, but this needs careful consideration.
  3. Train – It’s important to ensure your employees understand what dermatitis is, what causes, signs and symptoms, how to minimise the risks, and the need to report it immediately. Staff should be fully trained in any control measures identified in your risk assessments or COSHH assessments. 
  4. Monitor – If you have identified a risk of occupational dermatitis, regularly monitor the condition of your employees’ skin. This will usually involve informing your team of the signs to look for and asking them to notify you immediately if symptoms develop. You can also periodically request that your employees complete a health questionnaire. In some cases, your risk assessment may identify the need for more substantial health surveillance checks from a health specialist. This information should be used to review your controls and decide if changes are required. Remember, if you’re unsure whether a worker can complete their role safely with a particular ailment, you can refer them to an occupational health specialist. 

Expert health and safety support for your school 

Southalls works with education settings across the country to ensure staff, students, and visitors enjoy a safe, risk-free environment. We’ll help you pinpoint hazards across your site and recommend standalone services or ongoing H&S support to keep your campus compliant and incident-free. Talk to the team about tailored employee safety training, risk assessments, long-term compliance planning and more.