Cement and Concrete:  Risks and Recommendations.

One of the most used building materials is concrete. Workers in the construction and precasting industries use and handle wet concrete on a daily basis.

The overly enthusiastic D-I-Y Dans and I-Can-Do-It Karens of the world also handle concrete and Portland cement often enough, and like with most things in life, building and D-I-Y projects do not come without their fair share of risks. And frequent exposure to concrete is no exception. 

User safety – irrespective of whether you’re a seasoned builder or a first time D-I-Y-er – is of utmost importance. And in order to observe the necessary safety measures, you first need to be aware of what the dangers are. So, let’s take it from the top.

So, what are the risks?

Dry Portland cement is composed in a way that, when exposed to water, a chemical reaction called hydration occurs. During this chemical reaction a strong alkaline liquid is released which, if exposed to the skin, may cause alkali burns. Safety precautions are therefore necessary to prevent tissue damage and other serious injuries. 

In addition to the chemical risk, working with concrete and cement also poses a physical risk, such as back injuries and physical strain due to lifting heavy loads (since cement is often packed in very heavy bags of up to 50 kg). Frequent exposure to cement dust, dust from cutting concrete (via inhalation) should also be avoided.

The skin is naturally acidic with an average pH of 5, so when the skin makes contact with fresh concrete or the liquid it releases, the alkalis react with the skin’s natural oils and proteins, causing tissue damage. When organic tissue like a mucous membrane comes into contact with these alkali reactions, it can cause serious burns. Hence, safety measures should be adhered to and contact with cement and wet concrete should be avoided as far as possible.

The physical hazard of moving and mixing cement or transporting and placing wet concrete should be handled with caution and regard for the physical exertion it may have on your body. Inhaling cement dust can also aggravate the nose and throat, and may cause irritation in the eyes, due to the chemical reaction that occurs when the dry, airborne cement dust comes into contact with the moisture in the mucous membranes. The use of masks and goggles is recommended to reduce this risk. Similarly, the dust that results from cutting hardened concrete could contain un-hydrated cement and subsequently affect your respiratory system. 

Typically, after exposure to wet concrete the hands are left feeling dry and rough, as a result of the loss of the skin’s natural oils and fats. More frequent exposure of the skin could result in irritant dermatitis, which is a skin rash or irritation that occurs when your skin’s protective outer layer is damaged by exposure to an irritant (in this case the chemical reaction with wet concrete), or eventually allergic dermatitis.

What are some best practices?

It is advisable to wear protective equipment, such as impermeable rubber gloves and rubber boots to safeguard the skin from direct contact with fresh concrete. Only Hydrophobic alkali-resistant barrier cream should be applied to the hands and areas of the skin that are at risk of coming into contact with the concrete, as regular barrier creams will not provide sufficient protection. It goes without saying that the skin should be clean and free from any kind of residue before application, as it will otherwise be ineffective. Disposable rubber gloves are also recommended over re-usable gloves, to prevent a build-up of residue from reacting with wet or sweaty skin.

We recommend that protective clothing be washed daily, and any areas of clothing that have been accidently messed with wet concrete be cleaned immediately with clean water. Take extra precaution to ensure that protective wear does not become soaked with wet concrete or concrete liquids, as the prolonged exposure to the skin may cause severe tissue damage that could eventually result in disfigurement. 

If you are working with cement, avoid kneeling into the concrete during the placing or finishing stages. The use of waterproof kneepads and a kneeling board is strongly recommended. 

Exposure treatment and first aid

Since concrete burns are chemical and not heat related, the first step is to remove wet clothing as carefully as possible. the affected areas should be rinsed with cool, clean water. 

If the skin has not yet ulcerated, add vinegar to the rinse water (half a bottle to a bucket of water) to neutralise the alkalis. Afterwards, apply milk to the affected skin to neutralise remaining traces of alkalis without the risk of causing acid burns to the skin. Thereafter, gently dab the skin dry with a clean, soft towel and apply lanolin to replenish the skin’s fats and oil content. 

If the skin has already begun to ulcerate, use only clean, cool water to rinse, and then seek medical treatment as soon as possible. It is imperative that you seek treatment urgently, as the alkalis will continue to destroy the tissue, and the risk of infection is great during this stage. 

Remember to disclose to your medical practitioner that you (or the victim) should be treated for alkali burns, as they may not be aware that concrete contains alkali materials that may cause third degree burns.

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