Cement is used in a variety of construction products. But most commonly, it can be found in concrete. In fact, concrete is a mix of cement, water and aggregates. Cement and concrete are both useful materials that can be used safely. But there are a number of health hazards that you should protect yourself from.
Whether you are mixing up a batch of concrete, using cement in other ways, or drilling into concrete materials, you may be exposed to cement and concrete dust.
Is this dust harmful, and what are the risks?
When you think about dust hazards, the first item of PPE you might consider is a dust mask. But why do we need to protect our lungs when it comes to concrete and cement dust?
It might surprise you to know that concrete and cement dust contains silica. If you don't know much about silica, in dust form, it's deadly. Silica dust is one of the biggest killers of construction workers, second to asbestos. Silica dust kills around 800 people every year in the UK.
Concrete and mortar can contain up to 25%-70% silica so concentrations can be pretty high. The higher the level of silica, the more at risk you are from silica-related lung disease. Because of the seriousness of silica dust, and its deadly effects, there are legal requirements to protect workers from exposure. So you should think about more than just dust masks. To reduce dust exposure, consider damping down, ventilation and extraction.
Find out more about silica dust exposure limits, regulations and the law.
Apart from silica content, cement and concrete dust can be harmful by inhalation in other ways. On contact with moisture in your mouth, cement and concrete dust forms a corrosive and highly alkaline solution. We cover this in more detail in the skin section below, but if you don't want this dust on your skin, you are not going to want it in your mouth, nose or lungs either! When using or producing cement and concrete dust, protect your airways.
Cement based products, like concrete or mortar, can cause serious skin problems such as dermatitis and burns. Fine cement and concrete dust can land on exposed skin, and get trapped between loose clothing and skin. The dust reacts with sweat or damp clothing to form a corrosive solution, which will damage your skin.
Wet cement is highly alkaline in nature. A serious burn or ulcer can rapidly develop if it is trapped against the skin. In extreme cases, these burns may need a skin graft or cause a limb to be amputated.
Even if you don't get a burn or an ulcer from contact, damage to your skin can still occur. You might not notice the damage on the first contact. But regular contact with concrete and cement dust can lead to irritant contact dermatitis. This is a painful skin condition where the skin becomes:
Over time, allergic contact dermatitis can develop. This is a more serious condition, which can prevent your working with cement or concrete because any contact at all cannot be tolerated by your skin.
The good news is that manufacturers add an ingredient to reduce the risk of allergic contact dermatitis. But this only lasts for a limited time. So make sure that you use cement bags within the date marked on them.
Find out more about avoiding dermatitis from cement contact.
When cement and concrete dust enters your eyes, it can react with the natural moisture present. This can lead to redness, burns, or in more serious cases, blindness.
Chemical eye burns, such as the types caused by cement and concrete dust can just be a minor irritation, but they can also be extremely painful and life-altering.
Now we know what the health hazards are, we can be careful when using or producing cement and concrete dust. If you are working in construction, it's going to be near impossible to avoid cement entirely. But it is possible to use cement and concrete safety, by controlling the health hazards.
You can reduce the risk by avoiding, eliminating or reducing exposure as much as possible. Here's a summary of the types of controls you can consider.