It takes more than a hardhat to stay safe in construction.
Keep Skin Safe With Help from the LHSFNA
Toxics: A Laborer’s Guide to Dangerous Chemicals on Hazardous Waste Sites and several health alerts – Skin Problems In Construction, Solvents In Construction and Working Safely With Portland Cement – provide valuable information about chemical exposures and workplace hygiene. All can be ordered through the Fund’s Publications Catalogue.
Skin exposure to chemicals is a significant workplace problem in construction. Research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) finds that workplace skin diseases – occupational contact dermatitis – account for approximately 20 percent of all reported occupational diseases in the U.S. and annually cost one billion dollars in lost workdays and lost productivity. Occupational contact dermatitis is pervasive in the construction industry.
“Building materials like portland cement, solvents and adhesives can cause rashes, blisters, burns and other problems when they get on the skin,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “These materials can make it hard to breathe, and they can be absorbed through the skin to cause kidney and liver damage and cancer. Worse yet, without proper hand-washing and other appropriate workplace hygiene, workers take these irritants home and expose their families.”
NIOSH Hazard-Specific Skin Notations
SYS: Systemic – may cause damage beyond the site of skin contact
SYS (Fatal): Life-threatening – assigned to highly toxic chemicals
DIR: Direct (localized) – may include irritation, bleaching, darkening of skin, and skin cancers
DIR (IRR): Skin irritation
DIR (COR): Skin corrosion
SEN: Allergic and immune response reactions – may cause allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) and sensitization of skin and airways
SK: No known associated health hazard
ID(SK): Insufficient data to determine associated hazards
ND: Chemical has not been evaluated
Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, goggles, respirators and boots can reduce these risks. In accordance with OSHA requirements, when workers are engaged in hazardous tasks, employers must provide the necessary PPE at no cost to the workers.
Hazardous chemicals can cause a variety of ill effects when they come into contact with skin. These effects are:
- Direct: The chemical causes problems like flaking/drying, irritation, corrosion, changes in pigmentation, chloracne and skin cancer.
- Systemic: The chemical enters the body causing or contributing to health problems somewhere else in the body.
- Sensitization: An allergic reaction where the individual becomes unusually susceptible to a chemical or group of chemicals. From then on, exposure to even small amounts can cause severe allergic reactions to skin and/or the airway.
- Combined: The chemical causes multiple health effects in an exposed individual.
The multiple styles and materials found in every category of PPE can make selecting the appropriate protection easier said than done. Take gloves, for example. Depending on the chemical involved in the work task, some glove materials are more suitable than others. Because they are absorbent, leather or cotton gloves should not be used when working with wet concrete and mortar because they will not provide a protective barrier against the portland cement contained in these products. Portland cement contains hexavalent chromium (CrVI) which can lead to chronic, disabling dermatitis that can force Laborers into early retirement. Wet concrete and mortar also contain lime (calcium oxide) that is abrasive to skin and can damage human tissues. Gloves made of nonabsorbent butyl or nitrile are better choices. Well-fitting waterproof boots are also essential.
Unfortunately, some PPE can aggravate the very hazard against which it is designed to protect. Gloves and boots can make hands and feet sweat which short-circuits the skin’s natural defenses and allows chemicals to be more easily absorbed. In addition, sweat – along with poor fit, poor cleaning, breakthroughs or reuse of certain PPE – can also allow chemicals to pool and collect.
Lack of knowledge of the specific health effects of many chemicals further complicates the safety challenge. However, a new hazard-specific skin notation system (see sidebar) should help employers become familiar with the health risks associated with skin exposures to over 100 chemicals. The system allows scientists to assign multiple skin notations that distinguish between a hazard’s systemic, direct and sensitizing effects. They will be added to the NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards and, as they become available, posted in the online version.
“For many Laborers, working with or around hazardous chemicals is unavoidable,” says O’Sullivan, “but skin and other health problems don’t have to result. The more you know about the chemicals in your workplace, the safer you and your family will be.”
[Janet Lubman Rathner]