Skin problems in chefs and restaurant workers

Author: Brian Wu PhD. MD Candidate, Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles, USA; Chief Editor: Dr Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand, January 2016.

The food/catering industry is a major employer worldwide and takes place in a variety of settings, including restaurants, resorts, hotels, spas and bistros. Statistically, restaurant workers have twice as many cases of dermatitis as employees in other sectors. These skin complaints can become serious enough to warrant time off from work or even a change of career.

Why do chefs and food handlers have skin disorders?

Chefs, food handlers and other restaurant workers are at risk for skin disorders due to:

The nature of the restaurant industry itself also carries many risk factors, such as:

Understanding the nature of occupational skin disorders

The skin barrier is an important part of the body's immune system and acts as a natural barrier to a wide variety of substances that can cause irritation, allergic reactions and infections. The risk of skin disorders increases when the skin barrier is compromised by injury or disease.

Chefs and food handlers are at high risk for skin disease due to the nature of their work. The main occupational risk for chefs and food handlers is contact dermatitis.

Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis stems from wet work as well as repeated/prolonged contact with food, kitchen cleaners/sanitisers and other chemicals. Dermatitis causes redness, swelling and itchiness, most often of the hands, face and forearms.

Mechanical injury

The most frequent mechanical injuries include cuts, scrapes and knife or blade injuries secondary to cutting or preparing food. The most common sites for these injuries are the hands, forearms and fingers. These injuries can also lead to secondary infections, especially from staphylococci or streptococcal bacteria.

Thermal burns

Due to contact with ovens, grills, deep fryers and other sources of heat, thermal burns are frequent among chefs and restaurant workers. These burns result in pain, redness, swelling, blistering and when severe, loss of epidermis or dermis. Thermal burns also put workers at risk for secondary bacterial infections.

Workplace risk assessment

In order to be truly effective, a workplace risk assessment must cover all aspects of restaurants work, including:

Additionally, employers and employees must be committed to safety.

Employee education in the workplace is key to reducing risk, and should include:

Personal protective equipment

Gloves are required for workers when handling food and also during “wet work”, like the washing of dishes; dishwashes are advisable rather than washing items by hand. Gloves are used to reduce exposure to potential allergens or irritants, including food, cleaning or sanitising products.

Hand care advice for restaurant workers

To protect their hands at work, those employed in the restaurant business should:

Diagnosis and treatment of skin disorders

Diagnosis of occupational skin disorders should be based on:

Treatment of occupational skin disorders can include:

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