As a catering worker, what are the risks?

The food and catering industry accounts for 10% of all cases of occupational dermatitis. Public services union UNISON says that the catering sector has been identified as a high-risk sector because it has twice the number of sufferers than the average for industry as a whole. Particular at-risk jobs are cooks and chefs, and kitchen and catering assistants.

In food preparation and catering, it is usually the hands and forearms that are most affected. How quickly the condition develops can depend on the strength or potency of the substance, and how long and how often it touches the skin. Sometimes it can be caused by a combination of things, e.g. frequently using detergents in hot water.

The main causes of occupational dermatitis for catering and food industry workers are:

  • water, soaps and detergents;
  • chemicals and cleaners;
  • foods, including sugar, flour, citrus fruits and their peel;
  • fish and seafoods;
  • spices, herbs and seasonings; and
  • meat and poultry.

UNISON advises: "The good thing is that work-related contact dermatitis is easy to prevent and taking simple precautions should not cost a lot. You just have to think ‘APC’” as follows:

  • Avoid direct contact with cleaning products, water and food where this is possible and sensible – for instance, use a dishwasher rather than washing up by hand, use tongs to handle food rather than hands. You may already be doing this, as these are also good food safety techniques and practice.
  • Protect the skin. Avoiding contact is not always possible, so wear gloves where you can. Information on what type of gloves to wear will be supplied with the cleaning products. (Note that latex gloves and masks can cause occupational dermatitis.) Where you wear gloves for handling food, remember your food safety training. Also protect the skin by moisturising frequently. This replaces the natural oils in the skin, which help keep the skin’s protective barrier working properly.
  • Check hands regularly for the first signs of dermatitis – itchy, dry or red skin. When dermatitis is caught early, it can be treated, which can stop it from getting too bad.
Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.