Are skin diseases a problem in construction work?

All construction workers are at risk of skin diseases including contact dermatitis and cancer. Bricklayers, roofers, road workers and painters are at particular risk because of frequent contact with harmful substances. Construction workers are at risk of skin cancer mainly because of exposure to the sun during outdoor work, although some harmful substances can also cause skin cancer.

The substances that cause the most skin health problems are: wet cement, epoxy resins and hardeners, acrylic sealants, bitumen or asphalt, solvents used in paints, glues or other surface coatings, petrol, diesel, oils and greases, degreasers, descalers and detergents.

The symptoms of dermatitis can be severe including redness, scaling/flaking,   blistering, weeping, cracking, swelling, pain and itching. The signs and symptoms of this condition can be so bad that the sufferer is unable to carry on at work.

Skin damage caused by the sun can include reddening, sunburn and longer term damage such as premature ageing of the skin and an increased chance of developing skin cancer. Signs of skin cancer can include a scaly patch of hard skin, a red lump or spot, an ulcer, a new mole, or a patch of skin which bleeds, oozes or has a crust.

How can I reduce the risk of skin disease during construction work?

Employers should carry out a COSHH assessment (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) if hazardous substances are in use. These substances display signs and symbols on the container to indicate the type of hazard and a Safety Data Sheet can be obtained from the manufacturer or supplier. This provides further information about the hazards, which could include other types of hazard – not just skin hazards, and this information should be considered when you are deciding whether to use a substance and how to use it.

As part of the assessment process you should consider whether you can eliminate the use of a hazardous substance or substitute a less hazardous one.
Here are some examples of how you can reduce skin risks from hazardous substances:

  • Eliminate use of a hazardous substance, or if that is not possible, substitute a less harmful substance. For example, consider using water based paints, glues or coatings in preference to solvent or epoxy based products.
  • If a hazardous substance is to be used, consider how it will be mixed and applied and prevent contact with the skin where possible. For example, use long stemmed rollers or spreaders with splash guards to apply epoxy or solvent based products.
  • As a last resort, gloves and other protective equipment may be used to provide additional protection. Suppliers can help to select a glove suitable for the relevant hazardous substance and the process involved.
  • If you are working with hazardous substances make sure you use any protective equipment provided and follow procedures given to you by your employer.

How can I reduce the risks from exposure to the sun during construction work?

Here are some examples of how you can reduce the risks from sun exposure:

  • keep your top on.
  • wear a hat with a brim or a flap that covers the ears and the back of the neck.
  • stay in the shade whenever possible, during your breaks and especially at lunch time.
  • use a high factor sunscreen of  SPF30 on any exposed skin.
  • drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
  • check your skin regularly for any unusual moles or spots. See a doctor promptly if you find anything that is changing in shape, size or colour, itching or bleeding.

What are the health risks associated with cement?

Cement is a hazardous substance and can cause ill health in a number of ways. Wet cement can cause cement burns, which can be severe, due to its highly alkaline nature (pH 12-13). Cement can also cause irritant and/or allergic contact dermatitis. Allergic contact dermatitis is caused by sensitisation of the skin to chromium in the cement. Once a person has become sensitised, any future exposure may trigger dermatitis. Some skilled tradesmen have been forced to change their trade because of this.

Cement dust is also a respiratory irritant and inhalation should be avoided.

What Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) should be worn when using cement?

Gloves should be used when working with wet cement for long periods, such as in brick and block work. The gloves should be waterproof and suitable for use with high pH (alkaline) substances. Wet cement is pH 12-13. Suppliers can assist with the selection of appropriate gloves. Avoid any that are loose fitting at the wrist as these may result in cement being trapped between the glove and the skin.

Waterproof trousers and footwear, such as wellington boots, should be used where large concrete pours are taking place. If standing in cement, the waterproof boots should be high enough to prevent cement entering the top of the boot. Over-trousers should not be tucked into the top of boots as this can result in cement entering the boots.

When kneeling on wet products containing cement, waterproof trousers should be worn or, if screeding, waterproof knee pads or knee boards should be used.

Why does cement have a packing date and maximum storage period specified (or "expiry date" or "shelf life") and can I use it after this date?

Cement contains chromium and this can cause allergic contact dermatitis due to sensitisation of the skin. Manufacturers add an ingredient which reduces the amount of soluble chromium in the cement and this reduces the risk of allergic contact dermatitis. The added ingredient is only effective for a limited period, after which the level of soluble chromium may increase again. After the date stated, the cement should not be used unless each pack is first tested to determine that the level of 'chromium VI' is 2 parts per million or below.

Cement used in processes that are controlled, closed and totally automated, such as on a closed production line in which cement and cement-containing preparations are handled solely by machines and in which there is no possibility of contact with the skin, are exempt from these requirements.

Should skin care products, like pre and after work creams, be provided and used in the welfare facilities at a construction site?

Skin care products can help to protect the skin by reducing the effects of exposure to hazardous substances. Employees should be encouraged to wash areas of skin that may have been exposed to hazardous substances at breaks and after work. They should wash the skin with warm water and dry thoroughly.

Skin care products can be provided in the site welfare facilities and are designed to help maintain good skin condition so that the skin retains its protective role. Pre-work creams are designed for application at the start of work, after breaks etc. They can help remove dirt during washing, so milder cleansing agents / soaps can be used, but they do not function as protective gloves and employees should not use them in their place. Skin cleansers remove contaminants from the skin and the least aggressive cleanser that will do the job should be used. Moisturisers, including after-work creams, allow the moisture in the barrier layer of the skin to be restored and should be applied at least once a day, preferably more frequently, and ideally each time the hands are washed and dried.

Where can I get more information about skin diseases in construction?

If you would like further information about skin related topics including:

  • how to carry out a COSHH assessment
  • what the law says about exposure to substances that are hazardous to health
  • further examples about how to reduce exposure to hazardous substances
  • more information about exposure to the sun
  • skin checks and health surveillance

try these links:

Trade associations and other industry bodies can also be a good source of information about how to control exposure to skin hazards in your work.

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