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"One of our machine operators was recently diagnosed with dermatitis. Could exposure to one of our lubricants have caused this? If so, what can be done to prevent this from happening again?"
Certain lubricants can in fact cause this condition as well as more serious problems. While exposure to some oils and greases carries little to no risk of health problems, others can be quite toxic. Care should be taken every time contact with oil or grease is expected.
One of the best ways to prevent this event from occurring again is through knowledge. Inform the workers who have the highest exposure risk of what the hazards are so they can take extra care when using these lubricants. Information about how dangerous a substance is to humans as well as to the environment can be found in the material safety data sheets (MSDS). These sheets should be available from the lubricant supplier and should be accessible to everyone who comes in contact with the product. Many plants have MSDS posted in a variety of locations throughout the facility for quick reference if a problem arises.
A proactive way to reduce the risk of exposure would be to design machines so the chance of contact with the lubricant is decreased. For example, take an oil-lubricated gearbox. By adding quick-connect fittings to the fill and drain ports and having a top-up container with a quick connect on the spout could effectively diminish the chance for exposure and spillage from a simple oil top-up. Using good transfer containers with spouts or pumps with hoses would also mitigate the need for funnels and other devices that allow for direct contact with oils. These practices are recommended, especially where toxic fluids are being used.
In places where frequent contact occurs or is unavoidable, use methods to keep the material from coming in contact with skin. Items like gloves, long sleeves or barrier creams offer protection from direct contact with potentially harmful substances.
When it comes to matters such as this, the best way to avoid problems is simply by employing good housekeeping skills. Making sure everyone is informed about the risk of leaks and exposure to lubricants will go a long way in reducing health issues caused by prolonged contact. The old adage, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," is especially true in this case.