Cement and concrete is used widely and can be seen everywhere from homes and offices to paths, pavements and parks. It's a building material that is easy to work with thanks to its versatility and durability, but are you using it safely? Cement is safe to use if you are doing it correctly. Keep reading to find out some simple precautions and suggestions to keep yourself protected whilst using concrete.

Cement Or Concrete - What’s The Difference?

Cement is actually an ingredient in concrete.  Concrete is made when cement combined with water creates a paste which is then combined with fine aggregates such as sand and rock causing it to harden.

Cement makes up approximately 10-15% of a concrete mix.  The mixture causes a hydration process, binding and hardening the ingredients to a solid, rock type mass.  This process continues over time, meaning concrete hardens and becomes stronger the older it gets.  Contrary to the name, Portland cement is not a brand but a term for the type of cement used in nearly all concrete.

The Health Risks & Safety Solutions

Working with cement and concrete poses various health risks.  The main problems are often a result of:

Manual Handling

It is vital to ensure anyone handling cement and concrete has the appropriate tools, equipment and protective clothing.  

Cement, sand, aggregates and water are all heavy materials as is concrete in its liquid and solid form.  Anyone handling these materials could potentially be at risk of back or other injuries whilst lifting and carrying them.  Research shows that over a third of injuries that last for 3 days or more are caused by manual handling.  If being used in a professional environment, thorough risk assessments should be carried out.

Skin Contact

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.  This is because cement is highly alkaline and it produces an exothermic (produces heat) reaction during the setting process.  Cement also contains traces of elements such as hexavalent chromium, which may trigger allergic dermatitis.

Research shows that 5-10% of construction workers, particularly bricklayers, plasterers and concreters, become sensitised to cement putting them most at risk.  Once they have developed this sensitivity, exposure could trigger a painful case of dermatitis.  This can often lead these skilled professionals to change their trade. 

It is crucial to wash off any cement that has contact with the skin regularly to minimise the risk of sensitisation.  Workers must ensure skin coverage is adhered to with purpose made, tough work clothing in order to avoid potential third degree burns.  Clothing that gets wet from contact with fresh concrete should be changed because the material could transfer alkaline or hygroscopic effects to the skin, causing irritation. Durable work boots will be required for anyone standing in fresh concrete while it is being poured or floated.

Dust Inhalation

Dry cement can cause severe eye and respiratory irritation if it comes into contact with mucous membranes.  Handling cement can cause a large amount of dust to be stirred up, particularly when pouring from bags and disposing of the empty ones.  The health risk here is that exposure can irritate the nose and the throat. Scabbling or concrete cutting also produces high levels of dust, which may contain silica.

Ready mixed concrete can eliminate or reduce such exposure however, if this is not an option for you, you will need to assess the risk and put into place appropriate control measures.

Whilst working with concrete, it is important to protect your face, eyes and head.  A dust mask/face mask will help to minimise dust particles from being inhaled whilst safety goggles with side shields will protect your eyes from dust or splatters.   

We hope that this guide has been informative and that you will be able to work safely when using cement and concrete.  Click here to browse our full range of cement and aggregate products.