Construction hazardous substances: Cement
Cement based products, like concrete or mortar, can cause serious skin problems such as dermatitis and burns. This page tells you how to control these risks and why.
What you must do
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations says you must protect against the risks from cement-based products. Follow the Assess, Control and Review model. Pay particular attention to:
Identify and assess: Identify those tasks where cement based products will be used. Workers handling / mixing cement powder or using wet mortar and cement are particularly at risk. Check for any existing skin or allergy problems as this work could make these conditions worse. Follow the control steps below.
Cement powder is also a respiratory irritant. The dust produced while cutting, drilling etc dried concrete and mortar can cause more serious lung disease. More information on assessing and controlling this risk can be found in the section on construction dust.
Prevent: Where possible think about eliminating or reducing the amount of cement used and contact with it. Consider:
- avoiding exposure to cement powder by using pre-mixed concrete / mortar
- using work methods that increases the distance between the worker and the substance such as longer handled tools
- rotating cement bags to ensure they are used before the shelf date. The ingredient added to reduce the risk of allergic contact dermatitis is only effective for a limited period.
Control: Even if you stop some of the risk this way, you may still do other work that might involve contact with cement. Control the risk by:
- Gloves – gloves should be waterproof and suitable for use with high pH (alkaline) substances; eg marked with EN374:2003 and tested for use with “alkalis and bases” (class K) – some nitrile or PVC gloves may be suitable. Breakthrough time and permeation rate should also be suitable for the type and duration of the work. Gloves should be long and /or tight fitting at the end to prevent cement being trapped between the glove and the skin.
- Footwear – suitable footwear, such as wellington boots, should be used where large concrete pours are taking place. If standing in cement, these should be high enough to prevent cement entering the top of the boot.
- Waterproof trousers – when kneeling on wet products containing cement, appropriate waterproof trousers should be worn or, if screeding, use appropriate waterproof knee pads or knee boards. Minimise any time spent kneeling. Wear trousers over the top of boots. This stops cement getting into them.
- Washing – wash off any cement on the skin as soon as possible. Workers should be encouraged to wash exposed skin at breaks and after work. Good washing facilities are essential. There should be hot and cold or warm running water, soap and towels. Basins should be large enough to wash forearms. Showers may be needed in some situations where workers could get heavily covered in cement. Use emergency eyewash to remove any cement that gets into eyes.
- Skin care products – these can help to protect the skin. They replace the natural oils that help keep the skin’s protective barrier working properly.
Train: Workers need to know how to use the controls properly. They also need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of dermatitis. Finding skin problems early can stop them from getting too bad.
Supervise: Ensure that controls such as work methods, PPE and welfare are effective and used by the workers.
Monitor: Appropriate health surveillance is needed to check your controls are preventing dermatitis. This could be done by a ‘responsible person’who can be an employee provided with suitable training. They should:
- assess the condition of a new worker’s skin before, or as soon as possible after, they start work and then periodically check for early signs of skin disease after this
- keep secure health records of these checks
- tell the employer the outcome of these checks and any action needed
What you should know
Skin problems are not just a nuisance, they can be very painful and sometimes debilitating. Cement and cement-based products can harm the skin in a number of ways.
Wet cement is highly alkaline in nature. A serious burn or ulcer can rapidly develop if it is trapped against the skin. In extreme cases, these burns may need a skin graft or cause a limb to be amputated. Cement can also cause chemical burns to the eyes.
Cement also causes dermatitis. It can abrade the skin and cause irritatant contact dermatitis. Cement also contains hexavalent chromium (chromate). This can cause allergic contact dermatitis due to sensitisation. Manufacturers add an ingredient to lower the hexavalent chromium content and reduce this risk. This ingredient is only effective for a limited period as indicated by the shelf date. After this period, the level of hexavalent chromium may increase again. Once a person has become sensitised to this substance, any future exposure may trigger dermatitis. Some skilled tradesmen have been forced to change their trade because of this.
For more information on the effects of dermatitis see :
- Skin checks for dermatitis
- Managing risks from skin exposure at work HSG 262
- Working with substances hazardous to health: A brief guide to COSHH
- Provision of welfare facilities during construction work