Cement is widely used in a range of situations at construction sites. Whether you’re drilling into concrete, mixing up a new batch of cement, or placing cement blocks, you may be exposed to concrete and cement dust. Eliminating cement from your workplace is likely unrealistic, but the material can be used safely if the risks are adequately managed. In this article, we discuss some of the ways that cement dust can cause harm and how you can minimize the risk of dangerous exposures.
How Are Concrete & Cement Different?
The phrases “concrete” and “cement” are frequently used interchangeably, but the two substances are quite distinct. Cement is a binding ingredient used to create concrete. Limestone, clay, bauxite, marl, iron ore, sand, shale, and chalk are generally used to create cement. Concrete is the material that is actually used to make and reinforce buildings, sidewalks, and driveways.
Cement Dust Inhalation
Inhaling too much regular dust can be bad for your health, but breathing in cement dust can be especially harmful. Cement and concrete dust can potentially contain silica, which is one of the deadliest substances impacting construction workers. Mortar and concrete can potentially contain more than 50% silica, which can cause serious and potentially fatal lung disease. Construction workers are not even the only people at risk of exposure to these hazards — during the 9/11 attacks, first responders and bystanders were exposed to clouds of pulverized cement dust and silica.
Silica dust is so deadly that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set strict limits on permissible exposure limits to the material on construction sites. Workers may not be exposed to more than 50 micrograms of silica dust per cubic feet of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift. Additionally, there must be a written and implemented exposure control plan on the worksite to protect workers as much as possible.
Can Cement Dust Cause Skin Damage?
Cement-based substances can cause serious injuries if they get onto a person’s exposed skin. Concrete dust and cement can easily get on a worker’s skin or become trapped in their clothing. The dust can then react with water, damp clothing, or sweat to create a corrosive substance that can cause serious burns. In some cases, a burn may be so severe that the victim requires a skin graft or amputation.
Even if a worker escapes serious injury, they may suffer irritant contact dermatitis. This can cause symptoms such as dry, cracked, red, irritated, or swollen skin. This can progress further into allergic contact dermatitis. In essence, the victim develops an allergy to the substance causing the painful reaction, which can prevent them from safely working with cement or concrete in the future. If cement gets on your skin, you should wash it off immediately and clean the affected area.
Cement Dust in the Eyes
Inhaling cement dust or getting it on your skin can have serious consequences for your health. Naturally, you want to avoid getting this substance in your eyes as well. Concrete and cement dust can react with the natural moistness present in your eyes, causing burns, redness, or even blindness in one or both eyes.
Chemical eye burns need to be addressed immediately so you have the best chance of recovering fully. If you get cement or concrete dust in your eye, wash it with cool, clean water for no less than fifteen minutes. If irritation or pain persists, seek medical assistance as soon as possible.
Controlling Exposure to Cement Dust
It’s practically impossible to avoid exposure to concrete and cement if you work in construction, since it’s such a popular building material. However, you can safely use concrete and cement when proper safety procedures are followed. Your worksite should implement the following controls to promote safety:
Using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Personal protective equipment, or PPE, should be used on worksites to reduce exposure to dust and other hazardous substances. Even if there are controls to limit the amount of cement dust in the air, it’s ideal to have multiple overlapping protections in place to limit the risks faced by workers.
Some types of PPE that may be using when working with cement dust include:
- Dust masks
- Waterproof, tight-fitting gloves
- Long, waterproof sleeves
- Waterproof safety boots
- Waterproof pants to reduce risk of splashing or if workers must kneel on wet cement
- Goggles if there is a risk of splashing or dust contact
- Additional clothing to prevent contact with skin
Controlling Sources of Cement Dust
One of the best ways to stay safe from cement dust is by limiting the amount of dust present at the worksite in the first place. Doing so protects every single person present at the site. Effective controls to prevent cement dust include:
- Dust extraction
- Dust vacuuming
- Water suppression
- Adequate ventilation
- Using bagged materials within their expiration date
- Having onsite washing facilities
- Avoiding dry sweeping
Protecting Yourself From Cement Dust Exposure
If you are in an occupation where you are regularly exposed to cement dust, it’s essential to take the steps necessary to protect yourself from long-term health consequences. By limiting your physical exposure to cement dust, protecting your eyes, and avoiding inhaling the substance, you reduce your chances of suffering a life-changing injury.