Latex

Latex in rubber is an irritant. The most widespread use in workplaces is in the form of latex rubber gloves, used by many workers as a necessary protection to prevent the spread of infections. It is also found in a variety of products and medical devices such as intravenous tubing, catheters, stethoscopes, dressings and bandages.

Action Plan for Health and Safety Representatives

As rep, if any members of your DWG use latex gloves or come into contact with products containing latex:

  • Identify the extent of the problem by asking members if they have any skin problems, dermatitis or symptoms of asthma;
  • Encourage members to report all incidents of dermatitis and asthma;
  • Check whether workers are exposed to other substances that can cause dermatitis;
  • Make sure your employer carries out a risk assessment;
  • Insist on substitutes for the latex gloves;
  • Negotiate a policy on glove use which will give your members information, instruction and training on:
    • the risks of exposure to latex;
    • safe working methods;
    • arrangements for health checks/surveillance;
    • help in recognising the symptoms of sensitisation; and
    • the action needed if someone thinks they are affected by latex.
  • Negotiate a purchasing policy with your employer which specifies gloves which are either latex free, or with a low level of extractable proteins. Such information should be provided by the glove suppliers;
  • Look at the work procedures to limit exposure to latex: there may be no need to wear gloves where there is no risk of infection (for example, making beds);
  • Make sure your employer has provided proper washing facilities so that workers can wash their hands after removing gloves;
  • Make sure your employer provides adequate training and information to all affected workers.

What are the health effects of latex?

Latex allergy is a reaction to certain proteins in the latex rubber. The amount of exposure needed to produce sensitisation or an allergic reaction is unknown. Increasing the exposure to latex proteins increases the risk of developing allergic symptoms. This means that workers who use latex gloves frequently are at a bigger risk of developing allergies. Once sensitisation has taken place, further exposure to the substance, even to the tiniest trace, will cause the symptoms to recur.

There are a number of different types of latex glove available. All latex gloves present a risk of skin sensitisation after prolonged and close contact. But the risk is reduced in gloves with lower levels of latex proteins and process chemicals. Powdered gloves pose an additional risk, not only to the user, but to sensitised people in the area. Latex proteins leach into the lubricant powder which becomes airborne when the gloves are removed. Inhaling the powder may lead to respiratory sensitisation (or asthma).

Latex exposure can lead to a number of health problems:

Irritation:

Symptoms include redness, soreness, dryness or cracking of the skin in areas exposed to latex. This is not an allergic reaction, and once contact with latex stops the symptoms should disappear.

Type I allergic reaction:
  • localised or generalised rash, hives or itching.
  • Inflammation of the mucous membranes in the nose (rhinitis), sneezing
  • Red and swollen eyes, with discharge (conjunctivitis), itchy eyes
  • Asthma
Type IV allergic reaction:

Symptoms include dermatitis and itching with oozing red blisters, usually localised to the hands and arms. This is an allergic response to the chemical additives used in the manufacturing process.

Once a person becomes sensitised, symptoms can begin within minutes of exposure. At other times, with different people, the symptoms can be delayed for hours.

Who is at risk?

There has been an increase in the number of reported cases of asthma and skin complaints due to latex. This may be because there has been an increased awareness of the problem and also an increase in the use of latex gloves following the introduction of universal precautions.

Any worker who uses latex gloves is at risk of suffering symptoms and developing allergies:

  • Health care workers, including nurses and other medical staff
  • Emergency workers
  • Hairdressers
  • Cleaners and housekeeping staff
  • First Aiders in workplaces
  • Other sensitised people in the vicinity of latex gloves

Legal Standards

The employer has a duty under the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act (2004) to provide and maintain for employees, as far as practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. This includes providing safe plant, a safe system of work, information, training, supervision, and where appropriate personal protective equipment. The employer also has the duty to monitor conditions at the workplace and to monitor the health and safety of employees.

See Also:

  • Information on Asthma on this website
  • website on latex allergies from the UK Health and Safety Executive including a number of resources such as leaflets and links. 
  • Latex Allergy Guidelines - from the UK's Royal College of Physicians and NHS Plus.

References:

  • 'Latex and You' - a booklet produced by the UK Health and Safety Executive
  • 'Latex Allergies are a preventable condition' - from Labour Research, Jan 2001

Last updated, February 2015

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