Diagnosis, management and prevention of occupational contact dermatitis

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Setting higher standards
Diagnosis, management
and prevention of
occupational contact
Concise guidance to good practice series
April 2011
12:04 PM
Page 487
Clinical Medicine 2010, Vol 10, No 5: 487–90
Concise guidance: diagnosis, management and prevention of
occupational contact dermatitis
Julia Smedley on behalf of the OHCEU and BOHRF Dermatitis guideline development groups*
ABSTRACT – Occupation is an important risk factor for contact dermatitis that presents in adulthood. Occupational
contact dermatitis often has significant adverse effects on
quality of life and the long-term prognosis is poor unless
workplace exposures are addressed. The condition often
presents to general practitioners, physicians or dermatologists who will be responsible for facilitating management of
the workplace issues in the event that an occupational
health service is not accessible. This concise guidance summarises three sets of guidance from the Occupational
Health Clinical Effectiveness Unit, the British Occupational
Health Research Foundation and the British Association of
Dermatologists respectively. It is aimed at physicians in primary and secondary care, covering the clinical aspects of
case management but also drawing attention to the important actions they should take to address the workplace
issues, either in liaison with an occupational health provider
or in the absence of occupational health input.
KEY WORDS: contact dermatitis, guidelines, occupational
Contact dermatitis (CD) is common in the general population,
with a point prevalence of hand dermatitis 9.7% and incidence
5.5–8.5/1,000 person years.1,2 Among patients of working age,
occupation can be an important risk factor; skin disease is the
third most common occupational disease, with contact dermatitis accounting for 70–90% of all occupational skin disease.
Although not life threatening, dermatitis can have a serious
adverse impact on quality of life, daily function and relationships. It has important social implications for patients and their
families, including a potentially serious threat to employment.
The prognosis for occupational CD is better when the exposure
Julia Smedley, lead consultant occupational physician (honorary
senior lecturer), Southampton University Hospital NHS Trust,
Southampton; dermatitis guideline leader, Occupational Health
Clinical Effectiveness Unit; member of dermatitis guideline
development group, British Occupational Health Research Foundation;
Series editors: Lynne Turner-Stokes and Bernard Higgens
membership of the guideline development groups please see
the full guidelines3–5
© Royal College of Physicians, 2010. All rights reserved.
of affected individuals to causative agents at work is reduced.
Therefore, good medical management in this condition comprises both clinical treatment and careful attention to risk identification and control in the workplace.
Where an individual has occupational health (OH) provision
through their employer, the occupational aspects of prevention
and case management will be coordinated by OH professionals.
However, OH services are not provided under the NHS, and
only a third of employees in the UK have access to them through
their employers. Therefore for most patients, their general practitioners, physicians and dermatologists will be responsible for
ensuring that the occupational risks are identified and managed
alongside the clinical treatment, in the absence of
specialised OH advice.
Aims of the guideline
This guideline aims to provide physicians who work in primary
and secondary medical care with a standardised approach to
managing CD in patients of working age. The document summarises three key sets of recently published or updated guidance
(the source guidelines) from the Occupational Health Clinical
Effectiveness Unit (OHCEU),3 the British Occupational Health
Research Foundation (BOHRF),4 and the British Association of
Dermatologists (BAD).5 It covers both the clinical and the occupational aspects of case management, with a focus on the following areas:
diagnosis and investigation of CD
clinical management of cases of occupational CD
management of the occupational aspects including facilitating exposure control, adjustments at work, and primary
and secondary prevention.
The source guidelines have been produced by various multidisciplinary guideline development groups (GDGs). All have
taken an evidence-based approach, using standardised scoring
systems for the assessment of quality and grading of recommendations. The occupational guidelines (from OHCEU and
BOHRF) have used the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines
Network (SIGN) methodology, either alone or in combination
with the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) three
star system. Importantly, the GDGs included patient representation. Please refer to the full texts of the source guidelines for a
complete description of methodology and the membership of
the GDGs. The recommendations in this concise guideline
have been graded using SIGN categories.
12:04 PM
Page 488
Julia Smedley
The guidelines
A Recommendations for all patients
When an adult of working age presents with clinical features of contact dermatitis (CD),
the physician should:
Take a full occupational history, (see Box 1) asking the patient about:
their job
the materials with which they work
the location of the rash
any temporal relationship with work.
Arrange for diagnosis of occupational CD to be confirmed objectively by
patch tests and/or prick tests in a specialist contact dermatitis clinic.
Treat established symptoms with topical steroids, soap substitutes and emollients.
Advise patients of their increased risk from exposure to irritants and
sensitising agents at work, and counsel them to:
avoid exposure or protect their skin with suitable gloves
use soap substitutes and emollients during and after work.
Consider advising temporary adjustments to duties (or brief absence from work) to
facilitate recovery if a patient’s CD is severe and deteriorates because of work.
Refer patients with steroid-resistant CD to a dermatologist for consideration
of second-line treatments.
Refer patients with occupational CD to a physician who has expertise in
occupational skin disease for advice about workplace adjustments and
liaison with their employer.
B Recommendations if there is no access to occupational health (OH) advice
The physician should contact the patient’s employer to:
alert them to the diagnosis of work-related CD
remind them of their responsibility to notify the Health and Safety Executive, if a new case
give advice about programmes to remove or reduce exposure to the causative agents(s).
Advice should include the following:
Appropriate gloves and cotton liners should be provided where the risk of
occupational CD cannot be eliminated.
After-work (conditioning) creams should be available in the workplace and
workers should be encouraged to use them properly.
The use of pre-work (barrier) creams should not be promoted, as they are
not generally effective as a preventive measure.
Workers who are at risk of CD should be provided with appropriate education about:
the principles of good hand hygiene
the use of gloves, pre-work creams and conditioning creams (emollients).
GPP ⫽ Good Practice Point.
© Royal College of Physicians, 2010. All rights reserved.
12:04 PM
Page 489
Diagnosis, management and prevention of occupational contact dermatitis
The guidelines continued
C Recommendations if the patient works in healthcare
The physician should give the following specific advice:
Skin affected by CD is more likely to become colonised with bacteria, and
the risk is higher with acute severe lesions. Extra care must be taken to
avoid passing bacteria to other staff and patients.
Alcohol rubs should be used at work where appropriate for hand
decontamination instead of a full hand wash.
Healthcare workers with acute or severe CD should be restricted temporarily
from contact with patients who are at high risk from hospital-acquired
infection, until skin lesions are no longer severe or acute.
Healthcare workers may be able to continue with clinical work provided:
they are able to follow normal infection control requirements
they have not been implicated in the transmission of infection to a patient
the dermatitis does not deteriorate as a result of clinical work.
If CD deteriorates as a result of clinical work, temporary adjustments to
duties should be made to facilitate recovery.
GPP ⫽ Good Practice Point.
Clinical background
Contact dermatitis is an inflammatory disorder of the skin. The
key clinical features are acute erythema and vesiculation; while
the chronic phase is characterised by dryness of the skin with
thickening (lichenification), cracking and fissuring. The rash is
most commonly distributed on exposed areas of skin – in particular the hands and face. Aetiology is either irritant or
allergic. Irritant contact dermatitis (ICD) is caused by a direct
toxic effect on the skin, most commonly due to irritant chemicals and wet work that disrupt the skin’s barrier function.
Allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) is a delayed type IV (T cell
mediated) immune response to specific sensitising agents,
including small molecular weight chemicals and naturally
occurring proteins.
The prognosis of occupational CD varies widely; similar proportions of patients report either improvement or ongoing symptoms
(up to 89% in some series). A significant number (up to 10%) have
persistent CD in the very long-term despite removal from exposure. Loss of job or complete change of employment because of
dermatitis is common, and this can lead to financial impairment
for the individual and their family. However, most patients manage
to continue working in some capacity.
Occupational CD is notifiable to the Health and Safety
Executive under the Reporting of Incidents, Diseases, and
Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR). The employer is
responsible for reporting work-related CD when the diagnosis
has been confirmed by a doctor or other health professional.
Therefore, physicians have an important role in alerting a
© Royal College of Physicians, 2010. All rights reserved.
patient’s employer if they think that a new case of CD has been
caused by work.
Dermatitis is a prescribed disease for the purpose of
Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB), if the patient
has been exposed to chromic acid, chromates or dichromates,
or any external agent in the workplace (including heat and
friction) that can cause irritation of the skin. A patient would
have to be deemed more than 14% disabled to qualify for benefit. Physicians should be aware of IIDB prescription, and
should direct patients with severe occupational CD to seek further advice from the Department of Work and Pensions
Barriers to implementation
The main potential barrier to implementing these guidelines is the achievement of effective liaison between doctors
in primary or secondary care and the employer. With good
communication, the care pathway can be highly effective. It
is important to engage the patient positively in the process
of liaison with their employer, to address concerns about
job security openly, and to ensure that they have given consent for treating clinicians to share limited medical information in confidence. It is advisable to share the diagnosis
of occupational CD with the employer in order to ensure
completion of statutory reporting and planning of appropriate risk management strategies for the patient and their
employed colleagues. Where there is access to an OH service
12:05 PM
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Julia Smedley
Box 1. Points for specific inquiry when taking an occupational
High risk jobs
Agricultural workers
Chemical workers
Construction workers
Cooks and caterers
Electronics workers
Health and social care workers
Machine operators
Metal workers
Vehicle assemblers
Causal exposures
Chromium and chromates
Cosmetics and fragrances
Cutting oils and coolants
Epoxy resins
Petroleum products
Soaps and cleaners
Wet work
it is easier to protect the confidentiality of medical information. However, in the absence of an OH contact, doctors
should aim to communicate, with the patient’s consent,
with their line manager or the employer’s human resources
I am grateful to the members of the GDGs who contributed to the
editing of this concise guideline document, and the Health and Work
Development Unit (formerly OHCEU) who provided administrative
Meding B, Jarvholm B. Hand eczema in Swedish adults – changes in
prevalence between 1983 and 1996. J Invest Dermatol
Lerbaek A, Kyvik KO, Ravn H et al. Incidence of hand eczema in a
population-based twin cohort: genetic and environmental risk factors.
Br J Dermatol 2007;157:552–7.
NHS Plus, Royal College of Physicians, Faculty of Occupational
Medicine. Dermatitis: occupational aspects of management. A national
guideline. London: RCP, 2009.
Nicholson PJ, Llewellyn D (eds). Occupational contact dermatitis and
urticaria. London: British Occupational Health Research Foundation,
Bourke J, Coulson I, English J. Guidelines for the management of
contact dermatitis: an update. Br J Dermatol 2009;160:946–54.
Address for correspondence: Dr J Smedley,
Occupational Health Department, Residence
Block 4, MP100, Southampton SO16 6YD.
Email: [email protected]
© Royal College of Physicians, 2010. All rights reserved.

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