DON’T HARDEN UP, COVER UP!
Cement may be as common as muck, but take it lightly and it can cause serious burns
Fresh concrete is highly alkaline, with a pH of about 12.5. As a comparison, household ammonia is 11.5 and caustic soda is 12.7. This is very bad for skin and often not enough thought is given to the potential harm to people laying it.
There are a number of potential risks:
1. Concrete burns
One of the most dangerous things about concrete, according to construction safety organisation Site Safe, is that people don’t know they are being burned.
That’s because alkaline chemicals damage the nerve endings first, so there can be little initial pain. However, once they do kick in, concrete burn injuries are extremely painful and can take months to heal – some treatments can even require surgical treatment in the form of skin grafts. In extreme cases, the medical complications associated with the burn may lead to amputation or even death.
2. Irritant contact dermatitis
Irritant contact dermatitis is a skin condition caused by the chemicals that make up concrete. Some particles that make up cement are abrasive and can injure the skin. If the skin is not given enough time to recover, irritant dermatitis can develop. This condition is found in many concrete workers.
Symptoms include: Stinging, itching, redness, swelling, cracking, blisters, scaling, fissures, bleeding.
Cuts or wounds heal very slowly and infections are likely.
3. Allergic contact dermatitis
Allergic contact dermatitis is a skin condition caused by an allergic reaction to concrete. Cement-based concrete contains hexavalent chromium, which causes allergies and, in some cases, cancer.
Daily exposure may take years to cause a reaction; but when it does, it is irreversible. Allergic contact dermatitis is a common reason for concrete workers to leave the industry.
Symptoms include: Swelling, redness, oozing, cracking, stinging, itching, blisters, scaling.
To control concrete risks, consider the following easy methods:
1. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Reduce the risk of skin contact by wearing:
- Full-length overalls with long sleeves and trouser legs that won’t let dust or water in.
- Waterproof boots.
- Waterproof gloves.
- Eye protection.
Any clothing that has been contaminated by concrete should be washed and dried before it is used again. Do not allow contaminated clothing to touch skin directly.
Dermatitis can occur without skin being in contact with concrete contamination, so it is vital workers wash their hands before visiting the toilet and eating.
The best solution is to provide a large sink – big enough for workers to submerge their forearms in – with warm water, soap and clean towels to get the concrete off. If running water is not an option, the next best alternative is to store clean water in your work vehicle.
Don’t use abrasive cleaning products or alcohol wet wipes as they can damage the skin and increase the risk of injury – a mild soap is best.
3. Health monitoring
Ensure all workers that may be exposed to concrete know what the risks are and what they must do to look after themselves.
It’s recommended you get professionals to conduct regular skin exams and encourage workers to check themselves for signs and symptoms of concrete skin contact dermatitis.
Wastewater produced when working with concrete is toxic – it takes many thousands of litres of water to dilute one litre of alkaline back to a safe pH level (pH6-pH7).
Use these four steps to ensure runoff doesn’t pollute waterways, potentially killing fish and plants:
- Check the weather and pick a dry day.
- Contain the wastewater by making a bunded area.
- Capture the wastewater in the bunded area.
- Clear the wastewater by pumping it into a container such as a 1,000 litre cube.
5. Emergency action for concrete burns
If there is any suspicion that a concrete burn has occurred, seek help from emergency services.
For more practical safety guides from Site Safe, visit sitesafe.org.nz and search ‘practical safety advice’.
Site Safe is a not-for-profit, membership-based organisation that supports a culture of health and safety in New Zealand construction.
For more information go to: www.sitesafe.org.nz