Working Safely with Wet Cement

Cement is one of the most widely used construction materials. Those who frequently work with cement should be aware that it may be a health hazard and that safe working practices must be used to minimize the risk of hazards.
Common adverse effects of working with wet cement are irritant contact dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis, and cement burns.

What is the nature of cement?

  • It's abrasive.
  • It's highly alkaline (caustic) when wet.
  • It absorbs moisture from your skin.
  • It usually contains sensitizing chemicals and metals.

Most cases of cement dermatitis are due to the alkalinity and abrasive quality of cement. When water is added to dry cement, highly alkaline calcium oxide is formed, with the mixture reaching a pH of nearly 13. Therefore severe burns can result from brief contact with wet cement.

Cement burns most commonly occur when freshly mixed concrete or mortar gets trapped against the skin, i.e. by falling inside a worker's boots or gloves. The corrosive effects of alkaline chemicals usually occur rapidly, sometimes with exposures as short as one second. Serious skin burns or ulcers can develop from such a short exposure and can take several months to heal and may require skin grafting.

If you get a cement burn, you should seek medical treatment immediately. By the time you are aware of a cement burn, much damage has already been done. A cement burn can continue to get worse even after you have rinsed off the cement. Necrotic ulcers can develop in 12-24 hours. Complete healing may be delayed for 8-10 weeks.

Best practices for preventing cement burns include the use of personal protection. Workers must be provided with clothing to protect their skin from cement mixtures such as:

  • Gloves.
  • Overalls with long sleeves and full-length trousers.
  • Waterproof boots.

Clothing should be worn to eliminate traps for fresh mortar or concrete to fall in, i.e. with sleeves over the gloves andtrouser legs over the boots - not tucked inside. If trapping does happen, steps should be taken immediately to clean the contaminated skin and protective clothing with large amounts of clean water.

How do we keep skin healthy?

  • Immediately after working with cement or cement-containing materials, workers should shower with a pH neutral soap and water.
  • Try to avoid products with sanitizers, like lanolin or limonene.
  • Avoid barrier creams. The abrasiveness of cement can break the cream's seal. Applying barrier creams in the work area can trap contaminants against your skin.
  • Do not use barrier creams on damaged skin.
  • Use alkali resistant gloves and boots.