Health and safety - epoxy sensitisation
Have you ever had, or heard of someone, get a skin rash when working with epoxies?
Well, that skin rash could well have been a form of epoxy sensitisation. In simple terms, epoxy sensitisation describes the process in which your body becomes more and more sensitive to epoxy products and/or the chemicals used in them. Perhaps the most common sign of epoxy sensitisation occurs on the skin via rashes, however irritation to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs can also occur.
The funny thing about sensitisation in general is that everyone reacts differently. Some become sensitised to certain chemicals very quickly, while others can experience high-level exposure their entire life and never feel a thing! Another quirky fact is sensitisation typically isn’t localised, i.e. the symptoms don’t always line up with the cause. I’ve heard of contractors being hospitalised, unable to see out of either eye, yet they didn’t get product anywhere near their face.
Epoxy sensitisation - what I’ve learnt
Obviously the thought of an itchy skin rash or swollen eyes isn’t very pleasant at all and if you want a long, successful career in epoxy application, you must protect yourself. Here are a few key tips I’ve learnt about avoiding epoxy sensitisation -
- Treat every chemical as though it will cause sensitisation and avoid skin contact. Wear long sleeve shirts and pants. If you get product on you then remove the item of clothing and wash the affected area with soap and water. If you wear short sleeve shirts then use barrier cream on your arms and hands.
- Start wearing gloves. Many contractors shy away from using disposable latex gloves because they can be hard to change when hands become sweaty. An effective way around this is to put on a thin pair of cotton gloves underneath the latex gloves as the cotton absorbs the sweat and makes it easy to change. Double gloving is also an easy way to keep clean - if the top gloves get dirty, just rip them off and keep going. While on the topic of latex gloves, buy powder-free gloves as users can actually develop sensitisation to the powder/sweat combination produced while they work.
- Work as cleanly as possible and wipe dirty items on rags, not shirts or pants.
- Some chemicals will cause sensitisation much quicker than others. Generally it’s not the epoxy resin (Part A) that causes the problem but the curing agent (Part B). Some curing agents are more reactive than others and can cause sensitisation quickly if not handled carefully.
- There are certain parts of your body that are more sensitive than others when it comes to skin contact. The underside of your forearms is a common point of exposure and often the first area to show up in a rash. It goes without saying that you must wash your hands before eating or going to the toilet as these regions are also very sensitive.
- Wear a mask. This should be a given for solvent-borne users to avoid breathing in harmful solvents, however even solventless epoxies give off a small amount of vapour that can build up in confined spaces and cause problems.
The final tip I want to give is the one that you must take away from this post if nothing else: whatever you do, do not use a solvent to remove epoxy from your skin! The solvent breaks down the epoxy and makes it much easier to remove, but it also makes it much easier to penetrate through the skin and enter the body. This fact should be kept in mind for solvent-borne epoxies - these products already have solvents in them, which makes skin contact even more dangerous in this context.
Once sensitised to epoxies...
Ok, so you get that epoxy sensitisation isn’t a good thing and you know how it can be avoided. What happens if all that fails and you become sensitised; or you’re reading this and are already sensitised? If you are sensitised to epoxies then there it generally goes one of two ways -
- You might be lucky and only develop sensitivity to a particular raw material within the epoxy - something that isn’t found in every product. In this case you can find a suitable alternative that did the same job and continue working (as long as you worked clean).
- You might be unlucky and become sensitised to the epoxy resin, which is a much bigger problem because it could mean every product is off limits. This situation is the real tragedy of epoxy sensitisation because it can ultimately strip a contractor of their livelihood. Their body is telling them it can’t cope with the chemical exposure and unfortunately the only option at this point is to seek another profession.
Avoid epoxy sensitisation from the start!
As I said before, if you want to work in the epoxy industry over a long period then you need to develop the right habits from day one: work clean, protect your body, clean up without solvents and read material safety data sheets to understand what the potential dangers are. If you ignore any or all of these things, epoxy sensitisation could make your life misery and even spell the end of your career.
Take care and keep smiling,