Skin Disease in the Workplace


Skin exposure to chemicals in the workplace is a significant problem in the US. Both the number of cases and the rate of skin disease in the US exceeds recordable respiratory illnesses.

In 2010, 34,400 recordable skin diseases were reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) at a rate of 3.4 injuries per 10,000 employees, compared to 19,300 respiratory illnesses with a rate of 1.9 illnesses per 10,000 employees.

Most chemicals are readily absorbed through the skin and can cause other health effects and/or contribute to the dose absorbed by inhalation of the chemical from the air. Many studies indicate that absorption of chemicals through the skin can occur without being noticed by the worker.

In many cases, skin is a more significant route of exposure than the lung. This is particularly true for non-volatile chemicals which are relatively toxic and which remain on work surfaces for long periods of time. The number of occupational illnesses caused by skin absorption of chemicals is not known.

However, it is argued that an estimated 60,000 deaths and 860,000 occupational illnesses per year in the US attributed to occupational exposure, a relatively small percentage caused by skin exposure would represent a significant health risk.

Dermal exposures are addressed in specific standards for the general industry, shipyard employment, marine terminals, the construction industry, and identification, classification, and regulation of carcinogens.

NIOSH has developed a strategy for assigning multiple skin notations (SK) capable of delineating between the systemic, direct and immune-mediated effects caused by dermal contact with chemicals.

According to the CDC, occupational skin disorders (OSD) are the second most common type of occupational disease and can occur in several different forms including:

  • Irritant contact dermatitis,
  • Allergic contact dermatitis,
  • Skin cancers,
  • Skin infections,
  • Skin injuries, and
  • Other miscellaneous skin diseases.

Contact dermatitis is one of the most common types of occupational illness, with estimated annual costs exceeding $1 billion.