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Published: November, 2007; Vol 4, Num 6


What Does OSHA’s Portland Cement
Compliance Directive Require?

“After its court-ordered review of the workplace dangers of hexavalent chromium earlier this year, OSHA directed its inspectors to ensure that construction workers are properly protected from the hex-chrome hazard when working with Portland cement,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Though LIUNA signatory contractors consistently comply with OSHA standards, I asked the Fund’s Occupational Safety and Health Division to summarize the duties on which employers will now be checked so that no LIUNA contractors will face the risk of an OSHA citation.”

Laborers and contractors are aware that exposure to Portland cement can irritate and burn the eyes and skin. Less recognized and more serious, exposure to the hex-chrome in the cement can also cause allergic skin reactions that are serious enough to force some workers to leave the industry. Yet, in most cases, simple and inexpensive efforts can prevent these problems.

OSHA’s requirements are not new, but the recent compliance directive is focusing more attention on their enforcement. To meet the requirements and avoid citations, LIUNA signatory contractors should review their practices and procedures to make sure that the necessary precautions are taken. You must:

  1. Supply boots, gloves and eyewear to limit skin and eye exposures.
  2. Supply onsite clean-up facilities (see below).
  3. Ensure that exposures to airborne cement dust are below Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs).
  4. Train your workforce about the hazards of Portland cement and its hexavalent chromium content.
  5. Keep OSHA 300 log records of any dermatitis, allergies or illnesses related to the use of cement products.


In most cases, LIUNA signatory employers already follow these procedures. Providing onsite clean-up facilities is, perhaps, the most likely gap. A 55-gallon drum of water for washing up after mixing mortar does not meet the OSHA guidelines. Employers must provide clean, running water along with non-alkaline soap and individual hand towels. These must be available to anyone who works with concrete, mortar, bricks, blocks, precast or grout.

If a worksite does not have water available through pipes, contractors can provide a portable foot-pump handwashing station, such as those commonly used in hazardous waste operations. These can be rented for the duration of the job or until water connections become available on the site and a hygiene trailer can be operated.

Non-alkaline soaps are different from common bar soaps. They contain wetting agents that lift dirt from the skin without significantly damaging the underlying cell structure or worsening the damage done by cement contact. Examples include Cetaphil and PH 6 Liquid Hand Soap.

Finally, contractors need to establish procedures to maintain, and a place to store, any employer-supplied PPE, such as boots, gloves and safety glasses, which are not under the exclusive care of employees. PPE should be cleaned and stored so that all Portland cement is removed, it will not become contaminated in storage and it will be ready for use the next time it is needed.

A Step Forward

For employers, whatever costs may be involved in fully conforming with OSHA’s requirements are likely to be made up in reduced absenteeism and better retention of workers. Further, because all contractors must comply, the burden should not unbalance the competitive playing field; indeed, in some cases, it may help level it by forcing non-union outfits to extend their OSH commitments.

Certainly for workers, the ability to clean up thoroughly soon after exposure will mean less pain and suffering and improved quality of life. 

The LHSFNA’s newest publication is a health alert, Working with Portland Cement, available through the Fund’s online catalogue.

Addendum:  In February, 2008, OSHA issued a guidance document, Preventing Skin Problems from Working with Portland Cement.

[By Steve Clark. An article in the Fall, 2007 issue of Hardhat Health, a publication of the New Jersey State Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund, contributed to this report.]