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Skin in the Game

Alternate description
LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

“Whether you’re talking chemicals or sun exposure,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan, “your skin is your first line of defense. You’ve got to protect yourself. Make sure you understand the risks and take appropriate precautions.”

The skin’s functions are vital to health. To perform well, it must be in good health.

Skin is the body’s largest organ. It protects the heart, liver, lungs and other internal organs. It also cushions the bones and is the first line of defense against germs. Skin regulates body temperature. Nerve endings in skin convey heat, cold, pain, pressure and texture.

In the U.S., work-related skin diseases are responsible for half of all occupational illnesses and a quarter of all lost workdays. Chemical exposures and Mother Nature can wreak havoc with skin and with health in general.

Chemical Exposures

The physical nature of construction work can aggravate common skin conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis. Career-ending occupational skin disorders can also develop. Skin is the primary route of absorption for many hazardous chemicals used in construction and is itself the target of many occupational diseases. Engineering and administrative controls and/or use of PPE must be implemented. Caution must be exercised to reduce the risk of bringing home traces of these substances on shoes and clothing and exposing family members.

Chemicals found in many construction materials can cause debilitating skin problems. Some can affect overall health. All can be further aggravated by environmental factors including sweating that causes wet skin or low humidity that leads to dry skin.

Examples include:

  • Hexavalent chromium Cr(VI) found in portland cement , wood preservatives, pigments and spray paints: long-lasting ulcerative dermatitis that penetrates deep into skin and sometimes leads to secondary infections. Cr(VI) can irritate the eyes, throat and nose causing permanent eye damage, asthma and nosebleeds. Workers can become sensitized so that even small amounts can produce severe inflammatory reactions.
  • Products containing petroleum including crude oil, cutting oils and coal tar: occupational acne that produces black plugs on the skin.
  • Solvents, gasoline and diesel fuel: occupational irritant contact dermatitis resulting in redness, rashes, blisters and extremely dry skin.

The NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards and its regularly updated online version help signatory contractors determine the appropriate controls for work situations. Skin Notation Profiles (SK) provides summaries of all data used in determining the hazards associated with skin exposures.

The LHSFNA’s health alerts: Skin Problems In Construction and Solvents In Construction identity many construction materials that can harm your skin and explain what you can do to protect yourself. Order them by clicking on Publications.

Skin Cancer

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the main cause of skin cancer, the most common type of cancer in the United States and Canada. (Exposures to arsenic and radiation, certain chronic skin inflammations, medications and genetics also increase risk.) Between these two countries, more than 3.5 million skin cancers in more than two million people are diagnosed annually. Of these, nearly 82,000 are melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer, and more than 11,000 people will lose their lives. Laborers who work outdoors are at increased risk for all types of skin cancer. If they frequent tanning beds, the threat goes up by 2.5 times.

Skin cancer can show up anywhere on the body but the back, neck, face, backs of hands, arms and legs are prime spots. When found early, skin cancer responds well to treatment. Make it a habit to check your skin and to have an annual screening by a dermatologist. The American Academy of Dermatology’s (AAD) National Melanoma/Skin Cancer Screening Program offers free screenings in your community. Click here to find locations near you.

Possible Signs of Skin Cancer

  • Changes in size/color of a mole, growth or spot
  • Areas of scaling, oozing, bleeding
  • Changes in itchiness, tenderness, pain

Signatory contractors should:

  • Provide canopied areas where Laborers can take breaks away from the sun
  • When possible, minimize outdoor work from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. when rays are strongest
  • Urge Laborers to wear protective clothing — long sleeved shirts and pants — neck flaps and sunglasses with UV protection and to reapply SPF 15 or higher sunscreen/lip screen every two hours

Sun Protection Products From the LHSFNA

Lip balm, neck flaps and towelettes are available to LIUNA signatory employers, training centers, district councils and local unions through the LHSFNA’s Sun Sense Program. Order these and assorted educational materials by clicking here on the Sun Sense order form.

For other sun protection products including sunglasses, sunscreen and clothing, take advantage of a 25 percent discount to LIUNA members who shop online at Solar Protective Factory, Inc. Go to and enter discount code LHS25 at checkout to receive the discount which is effective through June 23, 2013.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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