Skin conditions in scientists and laboratory technicians

Authors: Brian Wu, MD candidate, Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles, USA. DermNet New Zealand Editor in Chief: Hon A/Prof Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand. November 2016. 

Scientists and technicians engage in important research and analysis in laboratories all over the world. However, this sector is at high risk of skin conditions due to the nature of laboratory work itself. 

In one study of 5641 workers from 137 different laboratories, 23% of workers had developed skin conditions due to the handling and care of laboratory animals.

Why are scientists and technicians at risk for skin disorders?

Risks to scientists and technicians who work in laboratories include:

Understanding occupational skin disorders

Occupational skin disorders are caused or made worse by the nature of a person’s job. They account for about 80% of occupational disease worldwide, but in the United States and other developed countries, rates have been falling due to an increase in both safety measures and automation. The layered, flexible nature of skin provides reasonable protection against chemicals, extremes of heat and cold, solar radiation, allergens and irritants. However, different types of work can lead to breaches in the skin’s defences and to the development of dermatoses.

Skin disorders associated with scientists and technicians

There are several types of skin disorder associated with laboratory work.

Chemical burns

Chemical burns are a common complaint among laboratory workers. This is due to tasks that involve close contact with a variety of chemicals.

Irritant and allergic contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis are common in laboratory workers. This is mainly due to frequent exposure to allergens and irritants. Contact dermatitis can also be caused by contact with laboratory animals.

Mechanical injury

Mechanical injuries are another risk for laboratory workers. They are often due to handling sharps like lancets, glass tubes, etc.

Skin infections

Workers in microbiology laboratories are exposed to many microorganisms that can infect the skin, particularly if the integrity of the skin barrier is compromised. Such infections include:

Workplace risk assessment

A risk assessment of the laboratory workplace should include assessment of the:

A collaboration between laboratory managers and workers is needed to ensure that laboratories stay truly safe and that accidents are prevented.

Personal protective equipment

Depending on the precise nature of the work, personal protective equipment for workers in the laboratory can include:
●    Gloves
●    Goggles
●    Protective aprons
●    Protective clothing and shoe covering
●    Masks.

Such personal protective equipment can protect the skin — not only on the hands but also the rest of the body — when dealing with hazardous materials.

Hand care advice for scientists and technicians

Proper hand care can reduce the risk of occupational skin diseases. It can include:

How is occupational skin disease diagnosed?

Diagnosis of occupational skin disease should be based on:

What is the treatment for occupational skin disease?

Treatment for occupational dermatoses may involve:

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