Working with wet cement
More than 1 million American workers in 30 occupations are exposed to the dangers of wet cement, a component in concrete, mortar, plaster, stucco and terrazzo. Masonry workers lose 2.5 times more work days due to skin problems than the national average and concrete workers lose 7 times the average. Unfortunately, too often the hazards of working with wet cement are accepted as part of the job, when they could be prevented.
Cement contains lime, silicates, aluminum, iron, magnesium and other additives that are corrosive to human tissue. Prolonged contact can cause burns or skin ulcers that take months to heal and may require hospitalization. Cement burns can also result in blisters; dead, hardened or discolored skin; and even disfiguring scars or disability. Contact with wet cement can also cause inflammation, called irritant contact dermatitis (ICD). Signs and symptoms include stinging, pain, itching, redness, swelling, blisters, scaling and other changes to skin.
Studies suggest 5 percent to 15 percent of workers using cement will develop an allergy to chromium, with symptoms ranging from a mild rash to severe skin ulcers. Allergic contact dermatitis (ACD) has many of the same symptoms as ICD but is difficult to cure and can persist for years. Once skin is sensitized, even exposure to a small amount of cement can trigger a severe reaction.
Abrasive-blasting, tuckpointing, cutting concrete or masonry, demolition of concrete and dry sweeping of concrete, rock or sand exposes workers to crystalline silica-containing dust, which can lead to a disabling and often fatal lung disease called silicosis. Exposure can irritate the nose and throat, and cause choking and difficulty breathing. Even low levels of exposure can cause damage that may not present itself for years.
Engineering controls can prevent exposure to silica dust, including wetting down the dust at the point of generation, installing local exhaust ventilation, flowing water through the drill stem, and using dust collection systems and masonry saws that utilize water. Other preventions include mixing dry cement in well-ventilated areas, working upwind from dust sources, and using ready-mixed concrete instead of mixing on site.
When these precautions don’t keep silica dust levels below the National Institute of Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended exposure level, respirators are required. Respirators range from simple disposable particulate facemasks to air-supplied respirators and self-contained breathing apparatus. Follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements for a respiratory protection program.
If you would like to know the exposure level to silica on your job, request an industrial hygienist consultant through OSHA’s On-site Consultation Program. The hygienist will conduct silica air sampling free of charge. On-site consultation services are separate from enforcement and do not result in penalties or citations. Consultants from state agencies or universities work with employers to identify workplace hazards, provide advice on compliance with OSHA standards, and assist in establishing safety and health management systems. To request a consultant, write U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA, 200 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20210 or call 800-321-6742.
First aid prevents further injury
Acting quickly can reduce the threat of more serious injury. Skin contaminated with wet or dry cement should immediately be washed with clean cold water. Flush and cover open sores or cuts with suitable dressings. Wash eyes with cold tap water for at least 15 minutes before taking the victim to the hospital. Clothing saturated from contact with fresh concrete should be rinsed promptly with clear water to prevent continued contact with skin.
Avoid contact with wet cement
Most cement burns occur on the lower leg and ankle when wet cement spills over the top of boots or penetrates through defective protective shoes. The wet cement damages skin slowly. By the time a worker feels the chemical burn, the damage is done.
Preventing contact with wet cement begins with good hygiene and personal protective equipment. Start the day wearing clean clothes and conclude with a shower.
What to wear when working with wet cement
Wear alkali-resistant gloves, coveralls with long sleeves and full-length trousers. Tape shirt sleeves inside gloves and avoid jewelry, as cement can collect under rings or watches. Tuck pants inside waterproof boots that are high enough to prevent concrete from getting in. Use waterproof pads between fresh concrete surfaces and your knees, elbows and hands. Wear full cover goggles or safety glasses to protect your eyes from splattered concrete and dust, which can cause problems ranging from immediate or delayed redness to chemical burns and blindness.
To protect your hands
Gloves must fit, be cleaned daily, and be discarded when worn or badly contaminated. Also, wash hands before eating or taking a break, when the work day ends, or any time gloves are removed. Wash with clean running water and pH-neutral or acidic soap when gloves are removed to keep the insides from being contaminated. Avoid barrier creams because they can trap contaminants against the skin and skin-softening substances because they can seal cement residue to skin.