26th October, 2021
Contact with cement can leave skin feeling itchy and sore. This reaction indicates your skin is affected by irritant dermatitis or allergic dermatitis. The first signs can be dry or scaly patches, and over time skin becomes red and blistered. A huge number of people are affected by cement contact. How can you avoid it?
Cement is often used in construction work, in products like concrete, mortar and render. Many trades like bricklayers, concrete trades and plasterers will regularly work with cement-based products. Any worker handling or mixing cement, or using wet mortar and cement, is at risk from dermatitis.
Dermatitis might not seem like a big problem at first. So what if your skin is itchy and sore for a few days. You can apply a bit of cream and it will sort itself out. Won't it?
Well, in the short term that might work. But over time, your skin can become sensitised.
Skin reactions indicate that your skin is affected by irritant dermatitis or allergic dermatitis.
The first signs can be dry or scaly patches, and then the skin becomes red, blistered, very dry and cracked. It's painful. It's sore. It's hard to work.
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.
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.
Skilled and experienced tradespeople have been forced to change their trade or give up work. The skin reaction is so bad that they can no longer risk coming into contact with cement.
It doesn't have to come to this. If you take precautions early on and prevent skin from overexposure and sensitisation, then you can stop long term problems from developing.
Anyone working with cement should have control measures to protect their skin from long-term damage.
As contact with cement can be hazardous to health, it's covered under the COSHH regulations. This means that steps are needed to protect you from ill health through cement exposure. It's the law.
Wet cement is highly alkaline. If it gets trapped against the skin, it can cause severe burns and ulcers.
But it can also cause tiny skin changes that you might barely notice at first. Short-term exposure to cement can lead to irritant dermatitis. The cement particles, often mixed with aggregates, are abrasive to the skin. As the name suggests, irritant dermatitis just means the skin is irritated.
Where irritant dermatitis continues over time without treatment, the condition gets worse. The skin becomes more and more irritated by this hazardous substance. And as the irritation worsens, the individual has 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. And this painful condition forces some workers to change their trade.
His hands were red and cracked and his skin peeled. The itching and pain could be so bad that they woke him up at night. As well as the pain and embarrassment this caused, it meant long periods when he was unable to work, which created financial problems for him.
Raise awareness of the risk of dermatitis on-site with the dermatitis toolbox talk download.
Now we know how cement contact can lead to dermatitis and how severe and painful dermatitis can become, how can we prevent it? How can we stop this kind of skin reaction from developing?
As with most health and safety issues, prevention is better than cure. You cant cure allergic dermatitis, but you can prevent it from developing in the first place. This means being proactive and planning ahead.
The simple answer would be to stop using cement. But 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.
Instead, several preventative control measures can be used to minimise cement contact with the skin. And remember, if you stop the contact, you can prevent dermatitis from 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 from 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.
Once gloves or other protective clothing is contaminated with cement, it can no longer act as an effective barrier. If anything, it will hold cement against the skin, worsening the problem.
Change gloves and other clothing often, and check that cement is not getting trapped inside.
You can also use barrier creams as an extra measure to take care of your skin. Moisturising creams and lotions can treat dry, itchy or scaly skin, by keeping your skin hydrated and helping to protect it.
Even when you have done all you can to prevent or minimise the risk of dermatitis developing, it might not work in every case.
Where dermatitis develops, early identification can improve the chances of successful treatment. And if you spot a problem early, treatment can start before the condition worsens.
Carry out 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 competent to recognise the signs of occupational dermatitis related to cement exposure.
Encourage employees to report signs of dermatitis, to support early identification and treatment.
Keep records, and use them to identify early skin changes. If you notice an issue, you can take quick action. Maybe treatment is required. Or you might need to increase control measures or change procedures.
Skin problems associated with cement contact tend to develop over several years, and the earlier it's spotted and dealt with, the better the outcome.
Use the cement COSHH assessment template to manage the risks and comply with COSHH.
This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.
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