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How to work safely with cement and concrete

Date posted: 17 August 2015

Most building projects, whatever the scale, involve working with cement - largely because it is a component of some very commonly-used building materials: mortar, which is used in masonry; plaster, which is used on walls; and concrete, which is a strong, long-lasting and versatile building material used in many construction projects.

Cement is relatively inexpensive and straightforward to work with, yet it lasts for years and years, so it is no surprise that it is so widely used. Thousands of construction workers use cement every day without harm, but there are some risks associated with working with it – so you will need to be aware of these, and take the necessary precautions to protect workers' health and safety.

Main health risks

Cement can cause health problems mainly as a result of

  • skin contact;
  • dust inhalation / contact with mucous membranes; and
  • manual handling.

Skin contact

Cement is highly alkaline, and the setting process is exothermic (i.e. it produces heat), and as a result wet cement is very caustic and can cause severe skin burns if it comes into contact with the skin and is not washed off immediately with water. In addition, some trace elements found in cement, such as hexavalent chromium, may trigger allergic dermatitis.

Research has shown that between 5-10% of construction workers may be sensitised to cement and that plasterers, concreters and bricklayers are particularly at risk. Once someone is sensitised to hexavalent chromium, any future exposure could trigger dermatitis – forcing some skilled tradespeople to change their trade. The longer the duration of skin contact the higher the risk of sensitisation – so it is vital to wash off any cement frequently at intervals.

Since fresh concrete can cause chemical burns and skin irritation, skin coverage with tough work clothes is important. If skin comes into contact with concrete for a prolonged period of time it can cause third-degree burns. If a worker's clothing gets very wet as a result of contact with fresh concrete, make sure they get changed as the material could transfer alkaline or hygroscopic effects to the skin, causing irritation. Tough work boots will be needed for those standing in fresh concrete while it is being poured or floated.

Dust inhalation / contact with mucous membranes

Dry cement can also present a health risk if it comes into contact with mucous membranes, causing severe eye or respiratory irritation.

A great deal of dust can be produced when cement is handled, for example when emptying or disposing of bags.

In the short term, such exposure can irritate the nose and the throat. Scabbling or concrete cutting often produces high levels of dust too, which may contain silica.

You can often eliminate or reduce exposure to dust by purchasing ready mixed concrete, but if this is not an option you will need to assess the risk and put into place appropriate control measures.

It is vital to protect the eyes and the head whenever you are handling cement or concrete, using a hard hat as well as suitable eye protection against dust or splattering. Full-cover goggles or safety glasses with side shields may be necessary in some scenarios to offer a higher level of protection.

Manual handling

Everyone handling cement will need to be trained and competent in order to prevent incidents that could cause injury. You will need to make sure you have the appropriate tools and equipment to enable your workers to handle the material properly, and that all workers wears protective clothing and gloves.

Cement or concrete mixers are frequently used on building sites and even self-builders or small companies may hire a mixer from a tool hire company to help with a building project. It is important to make sure any workers are properly trained in how to use them, and are fully competent before they start mixing up cement or concrete.

When cement is being used to make concrete, there is the additional risk associated with handling heavy materials. Concrete is heavy in both its liquid and solid forms, and those handling it could potentially suffer injuries while lifting or carrying it. This is true whether shifting solid concrete blocks across the site, or pushing wet concrete along in a wheelbarrow to transfer the mixture to its pouring site. According to the Health and Safety Executive, more than a third of reports received of injuries that last more than three days are caused by manual handling (i.e. where loads are transported either by hand or using bodily force). Site managers / employers therefore need to carry out thorough risk assessments and wherever possible avoid hazardous manual handling.

Consider hiring suitable lifting equipment to avoid these risks and improve the health and safety credentials of your site.

In brief: The essential safety tips

  • Avoid eye and skin contact by using suitable eye protection and wearing waterproof clothing, waterproof footwear and waterproof gloves when handling cement. Should cement get into contact with the eyes of skin, rinse immediately with copious amounts of clean water. In the event of eye contact, seek medical advice.
  • Make sure that cement does not enter your boots or gloves. If it does, remove the gloves / boots and immediately wash off any cement from your skin using plenty of clean water.
  • Wash your hands and face after you have been working with cement, particularly before you eat or drink anything.
  • Never kneel in wet cement. If you cannot avoid kneeling, wear appropriate waterproof personal protective equipment.
  • Avoid breathing cement dust.
  • Try to order cement in smaller bags for easier handling. Avoid lifting injuries by using lifting equipment or, if this is not possible or practical, by limiting the weight lifted, and lifting using the correct method:

The method

  1. standing close to the load
  2. spread your feet
  3. partly bend your knees with your back remaining straight
  4. hold the load
  5. raise your head as your start to lift
  6. keep the load close to your body

Legal requirements

There are various laws in place that apply when working with cement or concrete, including:

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999: The employer must assess health risks and prevent or control exposure.

The Construction (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1996: Those in control of construction sites must ensure that suitable and sufficient welfare facilities are provided -- including the provision of adequate washing facilities with hot and cold (or warm) running water and facilities for changing and drying clothes.

The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992: Employers must provide suitable personal protective equipment for their employees (e.g. safety gloves, work clothes, etc), make sure it is maintained (and replaced, where necessary), and inform, instruct and train employees required to use it.

The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992: Employers must avoid manual handling tasks where it is reasonably practicable (e.g. using suitable lifting equipment instead), and undertake risk assessment of any remaining necessary manual handling tasks.

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