Knowing how to prevent and treat cement burns is important for any precast concrete plant.
By Evan Gurley
Cement burns can be harmful and sometimes disabling for exposed workers. For example, a recent Occupational Safety and Health Administration report cites an employee who did not follow the supervisor’s instruction to wear proper personal protective equipment on his feet. As a result, the employee exposed his feet to wet cement. After noticing, the supervisor instructed the employee to wash his feet and change into the proper footwear required for the job. Later, the employee felt discomfort in his feet and had to be admitted to the hospital. By the time he arrived for treatment, he had sustained second- and third-degree burns on his feet. Employees who work with wet hydraulic cement and don’t follow safety precautions are at risk of developing skin problems ranging from mild and brief to severe and chronic.
Cement exposure risks
Hydraulic cement is hazardous to skin for a number of reasons, including its potential hydrogen concentration or pH. On the pH scale, which runs from 0 (very acidic) to 14 (very alkaline), cement has a pH of 12 to 13. Human skin is slightly acidic at pH 4 to 5.5. When skin is exposed to a higher pH substance, it becomes more permeable and easily absorbs chemicals. As a result, chemicals in cement can irritate the skin and even enter the bloodstream. Additionally, cement is abrasive and draws moisture from anything it comes into contact with, which as a result dehydrates skin.
If not properly addressed, these traits can cause skin issues for workers in precast concrete plants with prolonged exposure. Cement also contains trace amounts of hexavalent chromium, a toxin harmful to skin. Dry cement is less caustic and therefore less hazardous than wet cement, but it can still cause a wide range of harmful effects to the skin.
Four main skin problems encountered by workers who are exposed to cement on a regular basis include:
• Dry skin
• Irritant contact dermatitis
• Allergic contact dermatitis
• Cement burns
Workers not following safety procedures often experience dry skin, which can be accompanied by redness, itching and other unpleasant symptoms when working with cement.
Irritant contact dermatitis
Skin contact with wet cement can also cause inflammation, referred to as dermatitis. Signs and symptoms of dermatitis can include pain, itching, redness, swelling, blisters, scaling, scabs and other changes in skin’s normal condition. Irritant contact dermatitis, a non-allergic form of dermatitis, is related to the caustic, abrasive and drying properties of cement. ICD can be short term or chronic.
Charles Piwowarski, area environmental manager with Forterra Building Products, said the best way to address potential dermatitis skin issues is by asking basic questions:
• Are employees being hygienic? This includes washing contacted skin, not staying in soiled clothing for long periods of time and using a pre-operational barrier cream.
• Is the plant providing soap with warm or hot water in the washrooms?
• Is the form oil contaminated? In some instances, the form oil may become contaminated with water, cement dust or other impurities. Be sure to inspect your form oil (totes, sprayers, tanks) and be suspect to changes in color and viscosity.
Some employees may be prone to dermatitis even with the above precautions, so it may be necessary to relocate an employee to another area of the plant to reduce or prevent exposure.
Allergic contact dermatitis
The hexavalent chromium in cement can cause allergic contact dermatitis, an allergic reaction form of dermatitis, in sensitized employees. When an employee is sensitized, the immune system overreacts to small amounts of hexavalent chromium, which can lead to severe inflammatory reactions after subsequent exposures. Sensitization may result from a single exposure, from repeated exposures over the course of months or years, or it may not occur at all. After an employee becomes sensitized, which can last for years, brief skin contact with very small amounts of hexavalent chromium can trigger ACD. This condition includes many of the same symptoms as ICD, but is difficult to cure.
If left on the skin long enough, wet cement can cause caustic burns, referred to as cement burns. Cement burns may result in blisters, dead or hardened skin, or black or green skin. In severe cases, burns may extend to the bone and cause disfiguring scars or disability. Employees cannot rely on pain or discomfort to alert them to cement burns, as immediate pain or discomfort may not occur. Cement burns can get worse even after skin contact with cement has concluded. National Precast Concrete Association and OSHA recommend any employees experiencing cement burns see a health care professional immediately.
OSHA standards applicable to working with cement
Several OSHA standards require employers to take steps to protect employees from hazards associated with exposure to cement. These standards include requirements for:
• Personal Protective Equipment (29 CFR 1910 Subpart I for general industry)
• Sanitation (29 CFR 1910.141 for general industry)
• Hazard Communication (29 CFR 1910.1200 for general industry)
• Recordkeeping (29 CFR 1904)
• Permissible Exposure Limit (CFR 1910.1000 for general industry)
The best way to prevent cement-related skin problems is to minimize skin contact with wet cement. Compliance with OSHA’s requirements for equipment, washing facilities, hazard communication and safety training, along with good skin hygiene and work practices, will protect against hazardous contact with wet cement at precast concrete plants.
Evan Gurley is a technical services engineer with NPCA.