Understand what causes rashes in the concrete industry and how to prevent them.
-by Bob Waterloo
Think about summer in a concrete precast or pipe operation. The weather turns warm, the workflow quickens and all of a sudden there is an increase of rashes among some of your production workers. Coincidence? Perhaps not. Rashes are a fairly familiar occurrence in the precast concrete industry and there are many potential causes.
It is easy to see why rashes occur more frequently when the weather turns warm. With warmer weather, we start to sweat. Long sleeve shirts come off in favor of cooler clothing, exposing more skin. Sweat acts as a magnet for anything airborne, and, as we know, precast operations can generate a lot of dust. Some of those airborne particulates may include concrete and/or cement dust that naturally ends up on our skin. This is often how rashes occur.
There are a number of materials in a precast plant that could cause rashes, such as cleaning chemicals, curing compounds, sealant, fly ash and other concrete mix additives. Safety data sheets for all materials should be kept up to date and new employee orientation should include stressing the importance of being aware of the materials and chemicals they are working with and how to avoid unsafe contact. While just about any type of chemical can cause a reaction, in the precast industry cement burns are also often an issue when cement and wet concrete are handled improperly. (See “Preventing Cement Burns” in the Jan-Feb 2016 issue of Precast Inc. to learn more.)
What About Form Release?
There is a common misperception that form release agents cause rashes too, but that is not necessarily true and may come from a time when form releases were quite different. Prior to 1999, the most common carrying agents in form releases were diesel, kerosene and fuel oil. Improper handling of those old-style form releases could have caused rashes.
That all changed with the passage of Volatile Organic Compounds regulations in September 1999. In response to the regulations, form oil composition changed. Today, most carrying agents in form release agents are now mineral (seal) oils. While these new compounds could cause skin reactions if left uncleaned or unattended over an extended period of time, the risk would be considered minimal compared with other products used in the precast and pipe industries. Modern form release products are much more environmentally friendly and as a result they pose less of a problem when exposed to skin.
How to Avoid the Rash
As with many environmental issues at the plant, continuous education of employees is the key to keeping rashes at bay. The NPCA Safety, Health and Enviornmental Committee recently developed training materials available at precast.org that can be incorporated into precast concrete safety training and toolbox talks.
Visit precast.org and type “skin protection” into the search box near the top of the page for links to two new SHE Committee publications on the topic.
In talking with managers at a number of larger precast plants, the consensus was that that cement, cement dust and concrete were the primary causes of rashes in the workplace. In all cases, personal hygiene, including regular changes of clothing worn at work and the washing of exposed areas of skin, were considered to be the most important steps to avoiding skin problems.
OSHA considers contact dermatitis an occupational illness and states that any skin disorders lasting beyond 48 hours should be recorded with a separate entry on the OSHA 200 form.
10 Ways to Help Protect Employees from Skin Rashes:
- Continually stress the importance of personal hygiene. Frequent washing of exposed areas should be done regularly during the day. Washing of hands should be done before putting on gloves and after taking them off.
- Constantly remind production staff that they are working with chemicals and that certain precautions must always be taken when working with portland cement.
- Concrete and cement dust will permeate clothing. A daily change of clothing should be a regular habit. Clothes should be changed at work so as to not introduce cement residue into the car or home.
- Employees will often use plant air to blow the dust off their clothes. It will clear off the surface dust but the compressed air will also “push” some of the dust through the clothing, making more skin contact inevitable.
- Use protective clothing, especially gloves, whenever possible.
- Dry exposed skin thoroughly after washing.
- The use of moisturizing creams will keep hands and skin supple.
- Remove any wet cement from clothing.
- Don’t wear jewelry at work.
- Employees should be instructed to let their supervisor know immediately if they are experiencing a skin issue. Any persistent skin problem should be reported to a physician.
Bob Waterloo is technical sales manager, Concrete Release Agents, Hill and Griffith Co., based in Indianapolis.