Your skin on concrete: Irritation, burns, and dermatitis

Your skin on concrete: Irritation, burns, and dermatitis header image

Concrete. It’s just about everywhere – buildings, bridges, sidewalks, parking garages, roads… you name it. With more than 250,000 people working in concrete manufacturing, the safety risks are high and frequent when working with this material. From slips, trips, and falls to lockout/tagout issues and more, over 10% of those workers, roughly 28,000, experienced an injury or illness on the job, and 42 died in just one year, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Present in all industries and applications where concrete is being used, some of the most common injuries to workers are related to your largest organ – your skin. Concrete can be highly caustic, resulting in ailments ranging from moderate irritation to the thickening and cracking of the skin or worse, and are associated with long healing times.

The three main skin reactions to concrete are:

  1. Irritation
  2. Concrete burns
  3. Dermatitis

The good news? These injuries are preventable. It’s best to avoid or minimize exposure to concrete and cement to prevent injury, and part of that is knowing what you’re up against, as well as properly gearing up for the job.

Skip to the bottom for HexArmor's PPE recommendations.

Skin irritation – Causes & treatment

Irritation is caused by the skin’s exposure to concrete and, more specifically, its aggregate material makeup. This is because concrete includes a binder ingredient called Portland cement, which is also found in mortar, plaster, grout, and more.

When wet, uncured Portland cement reaches caustic pH levels of 12 or higher, compared to the skin’s pH scales, which range between 4-7. Contact with this high pH can lead to a chemical reaction, with the potential to cause severe chemical burns to the skin or worse. Quick note: pH is a measure of how acidic or alkaline a solution is on a scale of 0-14 (most acidic to most alkaline).

Washing with soap and water as soon as contact occurs can prevent worsening skin issues and damage.

Concrete burns – Causes & treatment

Once concrete starts hardening, burns can form slowly over hours or days. That’s because, in order for concrete to harden, it has to absorb moisture, drawing water away from anything that holds moisture—even wet clothing and skin—which only aids in the drying process.

If hardened concrete is left untreated on the skin, skin begins to blister, swell, and bleed, leading to first-, second-, and even third-degree burns following soon after. Severe cases of concrete skin irritation can lead to permanent scarring and even require skin grafts or amputations.

Not only is this painful and distressing to the worker, but it is harmful to their employer as well— OSHA reports that concrete workers in the U.S. lose four times as many workdays for skin problems compared to other construction trade workers.

If cement makes contact with your skin:

  • Immediately wash the exposed area with cool, clean water.
  • If your protective gear gets wet, change it out.
  • Wash any exposed areas of skin even if you are not aware of contact—concrete burns can take hours to form.

If you experience a cement burn:

  • Wash your skin with water immediately.
  • Apply vinegar to reduce the burn; vinegar is a weak acid, so it will counteract the alkaline and help to balance your pH.
  • Seek professional medical attention right away if a large area of skin is burned.

Dermatitis – Causes & treatment

Prolonged exposure to wet cement can make you susceptible to Irritant Contact Dermatitis (ICD). ICD will cause the skin to itch, scab, and become red or swollen. Multiple ICD experiences can lead to Allergic Contact Dermatitis (ACD), a long-term sensitivity to the chemicals in cement.

ACD is difficult to cure, but short-term treatments include antibiotics for infections, steroids, antihistamines, and repeated washing with a pH-neutral cleanser. Because ACD and ICD take days to develop, bring persistent skin problems to your doctor’s attention as soon as possible.

The bottom line – Prevention is key

In addition to ensuring workers are trained on why exposure to concrete can be dangerous, skin irritation and burns are preventable with the help of proper personal protective equipment (PPE) – and it’s even mandated by OSHA, requiring employers to take steps to protect employees from hazards associated with exposure to Portland cement. To go a step further, researching and investing in proper, high-quality PPE, like gloves, is paramount.

This is important for a few reasons. For example, gloves not intended for concrete handling can end up becoming wet and allow chemical properties of the cement to go right through them, negating any protective qualities – and increasing risk of injury. Adding to that, seeped in or trapped cement can occur due to poor construction or intention of equipment.

Bottom line – make sure to do your research on the best PPE for your application and invest in high-quality PPE – you won’t regret it. It’s the easiest way to reduce burn-related incidents from wet cement and send your workers home safe.

OSHA recommends that workers who deal with cement wear proper PPE, such as:

  • Liquid or chemical-resistant safety gloves – This will help ensure that the protective qualities of the glove will remain intact, keeping hands safe and dry.
  • Long-sleeved shirts – Will help deter any dry or wet cement from contacting the skin.
  • Full-length coveralls or pants – Will help deter any dry or wet cement from contacting the skin.
  • Safety eyewear or face shield – Dry concrete is a fine, dust-like powder that can blow into the face and eyes; protective face gear helps mitigate contact to those vulnerable areas.
  • Rubber or waterproof boots – This will help ensure that the protective qualities of the footwear are not compromised by the wet concrete, keeping skin in those areas safe and dry.

Supplying employees with proper PPE decreases time-loss injuries, thereby increasing employee productivity. Additionally, taking care of your PPE can make it last longer, helping you to decrease your overall PPE cost.

HexArmor® can help

HexArmor® offers a variety of safety information and expertise, as well as varying levels of hand, eye, and head PPE, so you can be properly protected for your environment.

Let us know if you need help – our Solutions Specialists are ready to work with you at 1.877.MY.ARMOR or send us a message.

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