Contact with cement can leave skin feeling itchy and sore. This reaction indicates your skin is affected by irritant or allergic dermatitis. The first signs can be dry or scaly patches, and over time skin becomes red, blistered, very dry and cracked.
What often starts as an irritant can develop into a more serious allergic reaction. As skin becomes sensitised, only a small amount of contact can cause a flare-up.
This is contact dermatitis. A skin condition triggered by contact with a particular substance. This contact dermatitis will only improve if the substance causing the problem is identified and avoided. But that's not always practical if you work with cement regularly as part of your work.
Cement is often used in construction work, in products like concrete, mortar and render. Bricklayers, concrete trades and plasterers are most at risk. Anyone working with cement should put in place control measures to protect skin from long-term damage.
As contact with cement can be hazardous to health, it's covered under the COSHH regulations. This means steps are needed to protect you from ill health through cement exposure.
Short-term exposure to cement can lead to irritant dermatitis. The cement particles, often mixed with aggregates, are abrasive to the skin causing irritation.
Where irritant dermatitis continues over time without treatment, the condition gets worse. This also leaves the individual at a higher risk of developing allergic dermatitis.
Allergic dermatitis is usually (but not always) caused by long-term exposure. This type of dermatitis is the sensitisation to the chromate which is present in cement. Once someone has become sensitised, any future exposure is likely to trigger dermatitis.
Research has shown that between 5% and 10% of construction workers may be sensitised to cement and that plasterers, concreters and bricklayers are particularly at risk.
This isn't rare. A huge number of people are sensitive to cement contact. At least 100,000 construction workers have a serious allergic reaction to cement products.
At this level of sensitivity, any small amount of contact can trigger dermatitis. This painful condition forces some workers to change their trade.
Raise awareness of the risk of dermatitis on site with the dermatitis toolbox talk download.
How can we stop this kind of skin reaction developing? Working in the construction industry, it is difficult to get away from cement products. Concrete, mortar, render etc are all commonly used products within buildings and structures.
For many trades, the elimination or substitution of cement based products is not an option. So, as with most health and safety issues, prevention is better than cure.
There are a number of preventative control measures that can be used on site to minimise cement contact with the skin. This helps prevent dermatitis developing.
The most important way of controlling cement dermatitis is through good site hygiene. Cement left on the skin for a long time will increase the risk of sensitisation. Washing with warm soap and water should be done regularly throughout the day. Wash your hands, lower arms and any other areas of skin exposed to cement.
Better still, would be to stop your skin coming into contact with cement in the first place. Gloves and other protective clothing, such as overalls with long sleeves and trousers, can also be used as a barrier between your skin and cement. However, such measures may not always be practical for the work carried out.
Gloves used for this purpose should be elasticated around the wrist to prevent cement products from getting inside the glove. Cement trapped inside the glove could cause cement burns and increase exposure. Change gloves often and check that cement is not getting trapped inside.
Moisturising creams and lotions can treat dry, itchy or scaly skin, by keeping your skin hydrated and helping to protect it.
Prevention can minimise the risk of dermatitis developing, but not in every case. Where dermatitis develops, early identification can improve the chances of successful treatment. Treatment can start before the condition worsens.
Carry out suitable health surveillance for workers exposed to wet cement. There is a reasonable likelihood that dermatitis or other health effects may occur.
Health surveillance for dermatitis should include skin inspections at regular intervals. Make sure these are by someone who is competent to recognise the signs of occupational dermatitis related to cement exposure.
Keep records, and use them to identify early skin changes. Quick action can be taken to treat the condition and increase control measures or change procedures where necessary. Encourage employees to report signs of dermatitis, to support early identification and treatment.
Use the cement COSHH assessment template to manage the risks and comply with COSHH.