In 2007, an employee at a construction company in California was working in an area where wet concrete was being poured and he didn’t wear approved boots. As a result, his feet were exposed to wet cement. Some of his coworkers noticed he was wearing inappropriate footwear and had him change his boots and wash his feet. Hours later, though, the employee’s feet began to hurt. By the time he went to the hospital after work that evening, he had second and third degree burns on his feet.
Cement burns, which occur when the skin is exposed to wet Portland cement for too long, are serious injuries that can easily occur in construction environments if proper precautions aren’t taken. Less serious skin irritation can also occur as a result of exposure to cement. Although cement-containing materials like concrete are incredibly prevalent in construction workplaces, they still pose serious hazards.
So what exactly is cement and why is it dangerous? Let’s take a closer look.
Portland Cement: Definition and Dangers
Portland cement, whose name comes from the location in England where its ingredients were first mined, is the most common type of cement used in construction worldwide. The cement is made from a mixture of limestone, clay, gypsum and other additives and it is stored in powder form. When the powder is exposed to water it hardens, making it an ideal material for building projects. According to the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR), cement is a key ingredient in concrete, mortar, plaster, stucco, terrazzo and tile grout.
The reason Portland cement is dangerous to skin is because of its pH. On the pH scale, which runs from zero (very acidic) to 14 (very alkaline), cement is incredibly alkaline, with a pH of 12 to 13. Consider this: water has a pH of 7 and is considered pH neutral. Human skin is slightly acidic at pH 4.5. This means the pH of cement is vastly different from that of human skin. Because the pH scale is logarithmic (and each whole number change indicates the pH changes 10-fold), wet cement has a pH one billion times higher than human skin.
When the skin is exposed to this higher pH, it becomes more permeable, which means it more easily absorbs chemicals. For this reason, chemicals in cement can quickly irritate the skin and even enter the bloodstream.
Additionally, cement draws moisture from anything it comes into contact with, so working with cement can quickly dry out the skin.
Types of Skin Disorders
Workers who encounter cement on a regular basis are at risk for four main skin problems, and some of these are quite serious.
- Dry Skin – Because cement absorbs moisture, cement workers often experience dry skin, which can be accompanied by redness, itching and other unpleasant symptoms.
- Irritant Contact Dermatitis (ICD) – Cement’s pH and abrasiveness can quickly irritate the skin, causing a range of symptoms including pain, itching, blisters, scabs, swelling and redness. This condition can be short-term or chronic.
- Allergic Contact Dermatitis (ACD) – Some people have an immune response (an allergic reaction) to the chemicals in cement, mainly a chemical called hexavalent chromium. This condition includes many of the same symptoms as ICD, but it is difficult to cure.
- Cement Burns – If left on the skin long enough, cement can actually burn the skin. An employee may not feel the injury right away like a burn from a flame or hot surface, but the burns do look similar. Symptoms include blisters, hardened skin and discolored (black or green) skin.
It is important that employees experiencing skin issues consult a doctor to prevent permanent damage. If an accidental exposure to wet cement occurs, the skin should quickly be washed with soap and water. The product’s safety data sheet (SDS) can also be consulted for further first aid information.
Because cement is used in so many materials, workers with a wide variety of jobs are at risk. Concrete truck drivers, cement masons, carpenters, bricklayers, tile setters, plaster workers and terrazzo workers all must take steps to prevent skin problems related to cement work.
Employers need to provide the tools to keep workers safe: running water, soap and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Each employee working with cement will need five to seven gallons of running water for hand washing each day. Employees can’t just rinse their hands in buckets of water used for rinsing tools as that water likely contains cement particles.
Soap should be either pH neutral or slightly acidic. Many soaps are actually slightly alkaline, which will only increase skin irritation for these workers. CPWR provides a list of the pH values of many bar and liquid soaps.
Personal protective equipment should include gloves, rubber boots and anything else that will help keep cement from coming in contact with skin. ChooseHandSafety.org, a resource for selecting appropriate hand tools and gloves, has a special section to assist with choosing gloves for cement workers that can help with the selection process.
Make sure employees know the guidelines for hand washing and use of PPE, as improper use of either can lead to serious problems.
Workers should follow some basic guidelines to protect their skin. Some of these guidelines even apply outside the workplace.
- Wash and dry hands before putting on gloves. Use a pH neutral or slightly acidic soap.
- If gloves are removed, wash hands again. Putting contaminated hands inside gloves can cause even more damage than wearing no gloves at all, since the cement will be held against the skin.
- Wear long sleeves tucked into gloves. Tape around edges to prevent cement from getting inside the gloves or sleeves.
- Tuck pants into rubber boots. Tape around edges.
- If wet cement gets on clothing, change your clothes. Cement can quickly soak through to the skin.
- When removing gloves, be careful to not touch the outside of the gloves with your fingers.
- Clean gloves every day and throw away old gloves when they can no longer be cleaned.
- Don’t wear jewelry; cement can get caught in rings or watches.
- Don’t use barrier creams or lotions at work; these can trap cement particles against the skin. If you use creams at all, only do so at home after showering.
- Change your clothes at work and take them home in a plastic bag or container. This prevents cement from getting onto your car, which could hurt you or other passengers.
- Wash work clothes separately.
Cement in the Workplace
The Portland Cement Association forecasts the U.S. cement market will continue to grow in the coming years, so the number of workers exposed to cement at work will remain high.
Cement may not be the most dangerous substance an employee can encounter at work, but it is especially hazardous to the skin. By taking proper precautions to protect the skin, though, workers should be able to stay safe.
Employers should encourage workers to seek medical advice for any skin problems they do have, though, because many of these injuries and illnesses go unreported. When that’s the case, workers may experience chronic problems that are difficult to reverse. Employers can also check in with employees on a regular basis to see if they are experiencing symptoms of skin problems. Education and an open safety culture are key to preventing problems like ICD and ACD.
- OSHA’s Guidelines to Protecting Employees from Coronavirus– creativesafetysupply.com
- Effective Skin Protection against Chemical Spills– blog.creativesafetysupply.com
- How to Clean Contaminated Work Clothing– creativesafetypublishing.com
- What is PPE? – 10 Ways to Protect Workers– blog.labeltac.com
- Safety Myths – It’s Time We Debunk These 5 Safety Myths– safetyblognews.com
- Use Tools Safely– babelplex.com
- Understanding the NFPA Diamond– hiplogic.com
- Workplace Safety & Foot Protection– lean-news.com