Irritants in the Workplace

Irritants in the workplace can be hazardous! Irritants may cause injuries to workers’ eyes, skin, or airways. Depending on the irritant, injuries can range from minor to severe. In most cases, no lasting health effects will occur after exposure to diluted irritants if the exposure is restricted to a single event. However, prolonged, or repeated exposure to even weak irritants may result in lasting health effects such as eczema or asthma. 


It is also important to remember that if the irritant is caused from a controlled product, or chemical, workers must be trained in WHMIS 2015/GHS. You can access training online, or for free in our system.


Examples of irritants 

  • soaps or detergents in cleaning products
  • acids/bases
  • solvents
  • wood dust
  • welding fumes

Effects of Irritants 


On the eyes 


Irritants exposed to a worker’s eyes may irritate (redness, pain) and, in more advanced cases, cause ‘pink eye,’ an inflammation of the clear membrane covering the white part of the eye and interior lining of the eyelids.  


In severe cases, such as chemical burns, these can be divided into three categories: alkali burns, acid burns and irritants. The pH of a substance is measured on a scale from 1-14, seven being a neutral substance. According to WebMD, “substances with pH values less than 7 are acids, while numbers higher than 7 are alkaline; the higher or lower the number, the more acidic or basic a substance is and the more damage it can cause.” 


On the skin 


Initial acute effects of irritants on the skin may include a prickling sense or rashes, while the most significant skin health effect of irritants is contact dermatitis – also called ‘eczema.’ This inflammation of the skin may result in rashes, itch or pain, nodules, blisters, scaling, thickened skin, or skin cracks. Relatively strong irritants may cause contact dermatitis after a single or only a few exposures. Weak irritants, including water, may cause contact dermatitis when the skin is not allowed sufficient time for recovery from successive contacts.  


Contact dermatitis treatment is difficult, so it often develops into a chronic skin condition like ‘Eczema,’ which may make workers feel insecure (at work and at home) and deter the performance of work activities. 


According to Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, “In Ontario, Canada, 1,000 compensation claims are reported for contact dermatitis each year. According to some US statistics, skin disorders comprise more than 35 percent of all occupationally related diseases. Among all occupational dermatitis, irritant contact dermatitis accounts for about 80 percent.” 


On the airways 


Short-term effects of irritants on workers’ airways may include a prickling nose or throat and cough. Irritants may also cause odour problems, but not all odorous substances are irritants. The most significant lasting effect of irritants on the airways includes occupational asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cold-like symptoms known as rhinitis, and toxic lung edema (fluid build-up in the lungs).


Knowing the types of irritants and their impact is important in the workplace. Stay tuned for our blog next week where we will discuss some tips on how to handle irritants and prevent harm or injury. 




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