Skin and Respiratory Sensitisers

Last reviewed on 26/11/2012 13:56

This page gives advice on substances that can cause breathing and skin problems, and how to reduce the risks they present.

You will also find details of legal duties and obligations relating to skin and respiratory sensitisers and links to further information.

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What are skin and respiratory sensitisers?

Substances at work may cause allergies when breathed in, or when they come into contact with the skin.

Such substances are called skin and respiratory sensitisers.

They can cause permanent damage to the skin, nose, throat, and lungs.

If this happens, further exposure, even to minute quantities, may result in allergic symptoms.


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Effects of skin and respiratory sensitisers

Symptoms vary depending on which body system is affected.

Effects on the respiratory system can be the runny, itching eyes and nose typical of hay fever. These may be followed by more severe symptoms typical of asthma such as:

  • wheezing
  • tightness of the chest
  • breathlessness
  • coughing.

Symptoms of the skin can be itchy, dry, red and cracked skin typical of irritation. These may be followed by more severe dermatitis symptoms such as:

  • bleeding
  • spread of symptoms to other body parts.


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When do symptoms occur?

  • symptoms can occur on first exposure to the substance
  • most cases of sensitisation occur during the first two years of exposure, but more often within the first few months
  • symptoms can also occur after decades of exposure
  • symptoms are often most severe in the evening, or during the night, and so the employee often does not associate them with work
  • there can be an improvement in symptoms during weekends and holidays
  • with continued exposure, symptoms become worse
  • once established, respiratory attacks can be triggered by other things like tobacco smoke, cold air and exercise
  • skin attacks can occur with exposure to household cleaning products.


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What substances cause sensitisation?

Workers and employers should be especially vigilant if working with:

  • isocyanates (e.g. spray paints)
  • wood dusts
  • flour and grain dust
  • solder flux
  • laboratory animals
  • glues and resins
  • glutaraldehyde (Cidex)
  • chemicals in hairdressing.


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Legal duties and obligations around skin and respiratory sensitisers

As well as the moral duty of employers to protect employees and members of the public, General Health and Safety Legislation covers all employers and workplaces.

This includes protecting employees and the public from risks associated with skin and respiratory sensitisers.

More specifically, the following regulations place duties and obligations on employers:

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 These regulations set out the legal requirements for protecting people at work against risks to their health.

To comply the employer needs to:

  • assess the risk to health arising from work activities
  • decide what precautions need to be taken to prevent or control the risk
  • ensure control measures are used and maintained properly
  • monitor worker exposure
  • provide health surveillance as appropriate
  • inform, instruct and train workers about the risks and precautions needed.

→ Read more on Hazardous Substances.


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Health Surveillance for skin and respiratory sensitisers

Please see our page on Health Surveillance.


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Your questions on skin and respiratory sensitsers

Why is flour dust an issue and what should I be doing about it?

Further information about skin and respiratory sensitisers

COSHH Essentials (external site) This Health and Safety Executive site guides employers through the risk assessment and control process for common tasks and substances, including skin and respiratory sensitisers.

Free resources from Healthy Working Lives

Free guidance from the Health and Safety Executive Note – all links are to external pages on the HSE website giving options to download or order these resources:

Priced guidance from the Health and Safety Executive Note – all links are to external pages on the HSE website giving options to order these resources:


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