Many Laborers work with portland cement by pouring it into forms, applying it through the process of shotcrete, screeding it and finishing it. Workers who handle wet portland cement should know it can be dangerous due to the:
- Abrasive nature of concrete and cement
- High pH levels
- Mixture of corrosive, sensitizing chemicals and metals
Wet portland cement can cause skin problems such as contact dermatitis, which is characterized by redness, swelling and itching. Severe and chronic skin problems such as cement burns can occur long after exposure and workers may not be aware of them until after severe damage occurs. Exposures are most common on the hands, arms, knees, ankles or feet (e.g., when cement gets in workers’ boots).
“Exposure to wet portland cement is one of many health hazards that LIUNA members can face on the job,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Fortunately, a combination of awareness, training and wearing the proper clothing and equipment can greatly reduce the chances that workers come into contact with portland cement.”
You can protect yourself by wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for the job such as eye protection, butyl or nitrile gloves and waterproof boots under rubber or PVC overboots. A good fit is important; if PPE is too loose, cement will easily get in. Duct-tape pants to boot tops and change boots if the inside gets contaminated with cement. You should also wear long sleeves and tape them to your gloves to protect your arms from exposure. After work, remove the gloves carefully. Wash the outside of the glove first, then pull the first glove off and use it to help remove the second glove. Only handle the gloves from the inside. If they will be reused, rinse them off, dry them and store them in a sealed plastic bag to prevent contamination from your tools.
If brief skin contact occurs, ensure workers wash and dry the area thoroughly. Otherwise, any cement trapped inside will make exposures worse. Use a pH-neutral or slightly acidic soap on the jobsite. A pharmacy can help recommend the right soap or you can look up the pH value of typical soaps on the eLCOSH website.
If significant exposure occurs, first remove dry particles from the skin area. Then neutralize the area by applying vinegar, citrus or another acidic substance to water to help stop the burn, then seek immediate medical attention. Be sure to let your doctor or other medical professional know that you’ve had exposure to cement, as treatment for cement burns is different than a normal rash.
Portland cement also contains hexavalent chromium [Cr(VI)], which can cause an allergic reaction. Workers who become sensitized to [Cr(VI)] can develop an allergic skin reaction called allergic contact dermatitis. Once you become allergic, brief skin contact causes swelling and a red, itchy rash that becomes crusty and thick with prolonged exposure. Allergic contact dermatitis is long-lasting and more severe with repeated skin contact. If you develop an allergic rash or become sensitized to portland cement, you can break out all over from even small exposures, which may prevent you from working with it in the future.
Follow these tips to prevent exposure to portland cement and its harmful health effects.
- Always wash your hands with clean water before work, during breaks and at the end of your shift. Your employer should make sure there is plenty of clean water available.
- Remove watches or rings before work, as they can trap cement.
- Keep the inside of gloves clean and dry.
- Use waterproof knee pads or dry kneeboards if you have to kneel in cement.
- Don’t use abrasive cleansers or waterless cleaners.
- Avoid skin-softening products like lanolin or petroleum jelly to treat cement burns.
- Don’t clean with abrasive, solvent-containing products.
OSHA requires construction employers to provide PPE and make washing facilities available for employees exposed to portland cement. Washing facilities must provide clean water, non-alkaline soap and clean towels. These facilities must be readily accessible to employees and adequate for the number of workers exposed.
The Importance of Toolbox Talks
The LHSFNA encourages employers to give regular toolbox talks about safety hazards relevant to the work on your site. Toolbox talks are one way to remind workers about the hazards of portland cement and how to work safely when using it. The LHSFNA’s toolbox talks are meant to be read out loud to workers and include sample discussion questions and a place for workers to sign off that they received the information.
To order the Fund’s Portland Cement toolbox talk or any of the other topics available, go to www.lhsfna.org and click on Publications or call the Fund’s OSH Division at 202-628-5465.